Frayed nerves as traces of Brown were packed away
A momentous week in UK politics was encapsulated when Vince Cable walked past the ministerial car waiting for him, write Gordon Rayner and James Kirkup
Published 16/05/2010 | 05:00
IT was a fleeting moment of confusion and neatly summed up the journey into the unknown upon which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats embarked last week.
Leaving Number 10 on Wednesday afternoon after being told by David Cameron that he was the new UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable paid no attention to a chauffeur-driven Jaguar with its engine running. Only as he was about to walk past did the driver politely tell the Lib Dem MP that the limousine, which had been Peter Mandelson's personal transport, was now his to use.
Following five days of tortured negotiations that had led to Britain's first coalition government since the war, Cable, it seemed, could not quite take it all in. He was hardly alone. David Miliband, called to a shadow cabinet meeting on Thursday, had to ask his parliamentary colleagues where the shadow cabinet room was. Elsewhere, senior Conservatives who were gearing up for Cabinet roles suddenly found out, from television news reports, that they had been sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism.
Jeremy Browne, the Lib Dem MP, discovered he had been elevated to the government as Minister of State at the Foreign Office while he was in Tesco in his Taunton constituency. His bemusement summed up a week that had lurched from the breathtaking to surreal. The week that changed the face of British politics had enough twists and turns to rival a political thriller by Michael Dobbs.
Despite Nick Clegg's insistence on giving the Tories the first stab at forming a coalition, he faced resistance from senior party colleagues who felt the emotional pull of a pact with Labour.
While Clegg's team held informal talks with the Tories last weekend, Paddy Ashdown was arguing strongly for a Labour deal. The crunch came at 7pm on Monday, when the Lib Dem negotiating team met their Labour counterparts.
Two hours earlier, Brown had stunned the Tories when he announced that Clegg had asked for "formal discussions with the Labour Party".
The Tories accused Clegg of "treachery" and "weakness", with one senior MP suggesting: "He can't resist his party."
But the meeting with Labour was going far from smoothly. If the Lib Dems thought that the Labour team of Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson and Andrew Adonis were about to prostrate themselves, they had another think coming.
"There was no recognition that they had lost 90 seats and seen their entire programme trashed," said one negotiator. Remarkably, the one new concession the Labour team was prepared to make involved the Trident nuclear deterrent. Only days after Brown had accused Clegg of being "a threat to security" by suggesting that Trident could be replaced with a cheaper alternative, Labour offered to include its replacement in a defence review.
Now it was the Lib Dems' turn to be angry. Clegg called a meeting of his MPs, where the negotiating team reported that the Labour team "gave every impression of wanting the process to fail".
As the Lib Dem meeting broke up at 1am, the pendulum had swung back decisively towards the Tories. Although the Lib Dem and Labour negotiating teams resumed their talks, Cameron and Clegg met at noon in the Commons. Clegg was "diplomatic" about the behaviour of the Labour negotiators, but Cameron sensed victory.
However, Clegg kept telling Labour's negotiators he might come back to them, to the irritation of some Downing Street aides. By mid-afternoon Brown knew it was over and
was anxious to get on with the business of resigning.
Martin Argles, a photographer who was being allowed to capture the final moments of the Brown premiership, said: "The atmosphere in the room was surprisingly light-hearted, but very, very tense.
"They were all making jokes, repeating anecdotes about things that had happened, incidents on international visits such as mistaking diplomats for other people. It was really just to keep the tension down, I think, while they were waiting for this phone call (from Nick Clegg)."
When the call came, the office fell silent. Clegg said he was still not in a position to confirm an agreement with the Tories, but Brown was impatient to meet his destiny. "Nick, Nick," he interrupted. "I can't hold on any longer. Nick, I've got to go to the palace. The country expects me to do that. I have to go." Minutes later, Clegg was on the phone again. This time Brown told him he was quitting, no matter what.
Even as he made his way outside to tell the world "thank you, and goodbye", Downing Street staff had begun clearing Brown's office. Paintings by Brown's sons that hung on the panelled wall next to his desk were among items packed into boxes. By the time Cameron arrived, there was barely a trace of Brown's three years in power.