Examination of Witness (Question Numbers
21 OCTOBER 2010
Q83 Mrs Laing: Good morning,
Mr Letwin, and thank you very much for coming to see us this morning.
May I begin by giving the apologies of Graham Allen, who is the
of this Committee. Graham is unwell; nothing serious.
I am aware of that.
Mrs Laing: We suspect
he is watching us by some kind of electronic link and we're trying
to behave. He sends his most serious apologies and has sent some
questions as well.
As I am sure you are well aware, we are conducting
an inquiry into the formation of the Coalition Government, as
part of our general inquiry into the constitution and the prospects
of a written constitution or not, as the case may be. It is very
good of you to come before us this morning, having been a key
player in the formation of the Coalition Government.
We had here last week Mr David Laws and Lord
Adonis, as I'm sure you are aware, and so we have an emerging
picture of what happened in each stage of the formation of the
coalition. Before we go into general questions, I would ask you
is there anything in particular you would like to say by way of
Mr Letwin: Thank
you. No, I don't think so, in the sense that I think the Committee
will be well aware of the public information, and that sets the
Mrs Laing: Indeed, that
Mr Letwin: So I'm
open to whatever you want to ask me
Q84 Mrs Laing:
A simple question to start with. Was five days long enough to
produce a coalition?
Mr Letwin: I think
there is a balancing act here and I should preface what I am about
to say by saying that I don't think that what was true then will
necessarily be true at all future possible occasions. I think
it is dangerous to assume that either history stands still or
that there are easy generalisations. But dealing with the specific
period we're talking about, located as it was at a particular
point in our national history, I think, because of the state of
the public finances in which we found ourselves as a result of
the activities of the previous Government, there was a genuine
riskvery difficult to quantify, but a genuine riskthat
very serious financial consequences for the country in terms of
the financing of the national debt and the value of our currency,
which could have lasting, long-term impacts on our economy as
a whole, would arise if there was a prolonged period of instability
and uncertainty about government.
You could well have later times at which people were
forming or not forming coalition governments when there was no
such background, but at that particular juncture I think there
was a real danger that a prolonged period of instability would
have precipitated some form of crisis in the financial markets,
which in turn would have made it very much more difficult to form
a Government. So one could have created, by mistake, a vicious
circle, and for that reason I think there was an extremely strong
national interest in rapid formation of a Government.
The next question one has to ask, I suppose,
is how much better could we have done if we had had 10, 15, 20,
25 days; to which I don't know the answer. But my instinct is
that, as sometimes happens in human affairs, if you're in a pressured
situation and there are time limits, you do what you would have
done anyway in a longer time in a shorter time. I doubt much would
have altered if we'd had 10, 15 or 20 days. That is a long shaggy-dog
story, but my brief answer to your question is we didn't have
the time so the issue didn't arise. But I don't think it would
have helped much to have had the extra time, although I can't
Q85 Mrs Laing:
Would I be right in saying that 20 days would have been a long
time to leave the country without a Government?
Mr Letwin: In different
circumstances I don't think it would matter too much. There are
many countries in which coalition is a more usual phenomenon and
which are not, at a given time, going through a financial crisis
where I understand it is quite normal for that sort of period
of two or three or four weeks to elapse while a Government is
formed. As I say, I'm not making a general observation about how
things need to be at other times. I'm just saying we didn't have
that luxury and I don't think it matters too much.
Mrs Laing: Simon, on timing?
Q86 Simon Hart:
It was just a very quick question. During that period, the media
tended to interpret the situation as something of a crisis and
I think stoked up that national feeling. On reflection, do you
think it would be helpful that, if these circumstances ever occurred
again, there was some kind of written protocol that clicked in
where you wake up to an election result such as that? Would that
be helpful if you knew you had almost a statutory period of time
in which to form a Government, in order to keep the national mood
at a manageable temperature and, therefore, avoid the sort of
market consequences you were talking about?
Mr Letwin: I think
that is an issue that is certainly worth considering. I am very
conscious that it pays, when you are thinking about things that
have quite long-term consequences, to engage in mature deliberation
and I wouldn't want to give you a view suddenly on that question.
But I think it is an issue that I would very much welcome this
Committee considering and making recommendations about and then
I think it would deserve to be debated more generally. I certainly
think there is a case for a set of rules. As always, there is
also a case for flexibility and you have to balance those two
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
Q87 Stephen Williams: We
have a parliamentary system, obviously. So, arguably, the first
important occasion is the meeting of the House of Commons where
we elect the Speaker. Would that not be the logical backstop for
the forming of a new Government; the period in between the final
result of the general election and the first meeting of the House
of Commons? That could be the interval during which a Government
could be formed?
Mr Letwin: That
is certainly a possibility. As I understand itand this
is reflected in the draft first chapter of the Cabinet Manual,
which you will have seen, of coursethe normal practice
in other elections, for some time anyway, had been to rather rapidly
convene Parliament after the election; I think on average about
four days after. On this occasion I think it was about 12 days.
I don't think the period is set in any formal way. I may be wrong.
I am not a constitutional expert. But I'm not aware of any crypto
or actual constitutional document or statute that defines the
maximum period. So if the Committee were to think that the answer
to your question is that we should gear the period to the period
at which the Speaker is chosen and Parliament is convened to choose
him or her, then I think one would be forced back to ask the question,
"Well, what is that period?", and I don't know. At the
moment I think that is an unanswered question. So there is a sort
of daisy chain of consequences. But I can see there is a certain
logic in your proposition.
Q88 Stephen Williams:
Do you have a view on what that interval should be?
Mr Letwin: I guess
it is a view that you would share, which isn't terribly helpful,
which is that it should not be too long but not too short. The
question is: what is the golden mean? I hope that what I am already
expressing is certainly something that is the most profound belief
I have about these things; that is, these are cases in which it
is not the brilliant perception of an individual but the wisdom
of a collection of people that needs to be brought to bear. I
don't think adopting a dogmatic view about that would be sensible.
I think we should discuss it and come to a view and perhaps, over
time, change it. One lives and learns in these arenas.
Q89 Stephen Williams: One
of the issues that arose out of the timing was that Gordon Brown,
the former Prime Minister, went to the Palace and surrendered
the seals of office and David Cameron, the new Prime Minister,
was immediately summoned. I, along with quite a large chunk of
the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party, was sat in Pizza Express,
Millbank, when we found out that had taken place, in advance of
us meeting in Local Government HouseI think it was
just around the corner, to consider the final documents that our
teams had negotiated. Do you not think it would be better if the
Prime Minister was chosen by the House of Commons, once those
negotiations have come to full fruition, in a sort of investiture
Mr Letwin: I certainly
think that is a thinkable arrangement. Of course, under our constitutionand
this is something that I think is as settled as anything gets
in our constitutionthe Prime Minister in the end is chosen
by the House, in the sense that unless the Prime Minister can
command the confidence of the House, either through getting the
Queen's speech approved or through a supply motion that is accepted
or through a no confidence motion that he or she wins, then the
Prime Minister can't be the Prime Minister. I think if there is
a fixed point in our rather fluid constitution that is one of
them. So I don't think it makes an enormous amount of difference,
in practice, whether there is or is not a moment at which we say,
"This is the moment that the Prime Minister is chosen".
But it is, nevertheless, perfectly thinkable that you would have
such a moment. I certainly wouldn't object to having such a moment.
Q90 Mrs Laing:
If the Chairman had been here he would have wished to ask you
specifically, do you think, in planning for the future, that there
ought to be provision for a regular investiture vote regarding
the Prime Minister in the House of Commons?
Mr Letwin: As I
say, I certainly do not have any rigid objection to that idea.
I don't think it is something that would be transformingly different.
It would depend on what else went with it, but, as part of an
appropriate jigsaw, I certainly would have no quarrel with it.
Q91 Tristram Hunt:
In terms of the timing behind this coalition, was five days almost
too much? Because what we have heard from other witnesses is the
high degree of ideological convergence between the Liberal Democrats
and yourself when you entered into negotiations. So I imagine
you must have all been trying to find things to talk about towards
the end. Do you think that having that kind of ideological convergence
was helpful towards the formation of a quick coalition?
Mr Letwin: There
are two importantly separateand each importantquestions
contained there. One is, was five days almost too much and the
second is, is it helpful to have convergence for negotiations?
On the question of the time, I certainly would not describe the
five days as too much and we certainly were not in the position
of having almost nothing to talk about. In fact, it was nail-biting
to the end. Not because we hadn't had the time to discuss properly
the few critical issues that needed to be discussed to see whether
we had the basis for a Government, but becauseas a question
from another member of the Committee revealedinside each
party there was much to be thought about.
It was certainly necessary to have the amount of
time we had in order to allow that process to go forward to the
point where it crystallised in a set of decisions. Although I
certainly wouldn't wish to speak for the Liberal Democrats, I
think inside the Liberal Democrats Party there is quite a formal
process. Conservative colleagues may think that there should be
inside the Conservative Party, but there isn't. But, nevertheless,
we had an informal process that we did go through. I think there
is the need for those kinds of processes and I certainly don't
think you could telescope them into a shorter time. In fact, I
think I could imagine colleagues, in either party, feeling that
it wasor indeed, in the Labour Party, on their side of
the fencequite a compressed period in which to consider
the issues and, of course, the dynamics of consideration internally
affect the negotiating dynamics.
We were faced with a triangular situation in which
there were three parties, each thinking through things, and one
party that was having to make a very difficult decision as between
the other two. That affected the negotiations that each of the
larger parties were having with the party that was trying to make
a decision between them. So it does take a certain number of hours
to go through that process. While I stick with my view that it
wouldn't have made too much difference if we'd had more than the
five days, I can sayas close to certainty as you can in
human affairsthat if we'd only had three days we probably
could not have done it. I simply don't think we could have gone
through the processes behind the scenes where we would have reached
the point where we could agree.
Q92 Tristram Hunt:
Because it was more a question, not of the leaderships of the
party convincing each other of their philosophical groundingbecause
we know that the Liberal Democrats went into the negotiations
committed to the same fiscal strategy as yourself, in terms of
the deficitbut what the five days was about was squaring
your parties to the agreement?
Mr Letwin: It's
sort of half yes, but I think I would put what you are saying
a little differently, in the sense that it is more interactive
than that suggests. How much we gave and took on which parts of
the negotiation of the things that were most difficult to negotiate,
which were the only things we were discussing at that stage, very
much depended on the reactions that we andon the Liberal
sidethey received from colleagues coming home; not least,
incidentally, the two party leaders. We have to remember that
neither Nick Clegg nor David Cameron were present at these negotiations.
You might imagine that weI can only speak on the Conservative
side of this, but I am sure it was true on the other sidewere
pretty acutely conscious, in the Conservative negotiating team,
that a figure who was the leader of our party would have certain
views about what it was we had said and done. So we had to come
home and talk to him, but not just him.
We had to talk to others, both specifically about
detail and, more generally, about where we were going inside the
leadership of the party. Then we had to have very considerable
discussions with colleagues much more widely in the parliamentary
party and, indeed, beyond the parliamentary party. I know that
the Liberals were in the same position. I imagine that the Labour
negotiators were too. So it's not a question of squaring. It is
a question of interacting with people not in the room and reflecting
the effects of those interactions back into the negotiations.
Indeed, as I think the Committee has heard already
from other sources, there were times during the negotiations where
a related but different negotiation went onat least in
our casebetween David and Nick. So you have quite a complicated
tapestry of people talking to one another and there is the minimum
amount of time during which human beings can get to the points
they need to get to psychologically, emotionally and intellectually.
I really do think if we tried to compress it into two or three
days it probably would have collapsed.
Mrs Laing: That is very
Mr Letwin: If I
may just answer the second question you're asking?
Mrs Laing: Of course.
Mr Letwin: Was
it helpful to the negotiations that we had a high degree of ideological
convergence? Yes, it was totally required. If we had been in positions
as other parties, or the same parties, at other times have found
themselves in, of very considerable and profound divergences,
I don't think five days would have sufficed to deal with them.
There were some very crunchy issues we needed to resolve but,
as you rightly point out, the broad conception of where we thought
the country was and what we thought the country needed was very
similar. Indeed, I had satisfied myself of that by pretty extensive
investigations of the Liberal policy documents before we started
the process. I am pretty certain that if that hadn't been the
case, we couldn't have done it in five days. We were able to walk
into the negotiations pretty much knowingin fact, I think
it turned out entirely accurately knowingwhat the crunch
issues were. We knew that there were a small number of them and
one just had to find ways through those.
Mrs Laing: Thank you.
That is extremely helpful. We heard evidence last week from Mr
Laws and Lord Adonis, which was in the area that you have touched
Sheila Gilmore: Chair,
just a follow up on the timing issue.
Mrs Laing: Let us pause
where you are, Mr Letwin, and flip back for a moment to the timing
issue, and then we'll go back.
Q93 Sheila Gilmore:
I would also like to get on the record that the view that there
was such an economic crisis that this had to be done in a great
hurry is your own view, I would suggest.
Mr Letwin: Correct.
Sheila Gilmore: It is
not necessarily shared here by everyone.
Mr Letwin: I'm
sorry, I didn't mean in any way to imply that others thought it.
I thought it.
Q94 Sheila Gilmore:
My perception from being further away from what was happeningand
I think perhaps the public's perceptionwas there was a
lot of pressure from the media who did not understand the situation
we were in. In other words, "It's a constitutional crisis,
this is a real problem." Had there been a clearer process,
perhaps even a written process, that accepted that it takes time
to put together a coalition there might not have been that pressure.
The media certainly did not seem to understand the process and
that may have put pressure on everybody involved; we were not
just in, as you saw it, a financial crisis but that we were in
some form of constitutional crisis and if we had a written procedure
there would not be a constitutional crisis. Does that make sense?
Mr Letwin: May
I just respond to that?
Q95 Mrs Laing:
We will come back to the issue of the Cabinet Manual and the formal
process in a moment or two, but if there is anything you would
like to say about media pressure and so on?
Mr Letwin: I think
I would like to say something about the media pressure and I want
to say something that may strike you as unusual. Shall I wait
until the dreadful bells finish?
Mrs Laing: Yes, let us
Mr Letwin: I speak
for myself here. I don't know what all of my colleagues felt,
even in the negotiating team. My own view is that the amusement
that the media had reporting with great excitement on the event
and having very large numbers of cameras tracking us back and
forth as we walked back and forth was entirely spurious. It had
nothing to do with anything. It didn't cause the people of Britain
the slightest concern and didn't cause us the slightest concern.
I can speak for the last bit definitely. We were not in the least
concerned about it. And I don't think, if we went out there and
asked Mrs Jones and Mrs Smith, "Did you find this a terrible
constitutional crisis", we would find anything different.
Indeed, I think one of the splendid features of the whole scene
was that it was a brief moment in which serious politicians of
all three parties took charge of a process and carried it out
in a serious and professional way, paying absolutely not the slightest
attention to the media. In fact, I had a very strong sense that
the media were astonished and horrified that they found out nothing.
Indeed, one of the bases of trust between ourselves
and our Liberal Democrats counterpartsI can't speak for
the other negotiationswas that not a single thing we said
to one another leaked at any time during that process. So we quite
quickly came to understand that if we said things to them and
they said things to us, neither of us was going to let anybody
else know. I had a very strong sense that the media thought it
was extraordinary, almost unconstitutional, that politicians should
have a set of discussions that the media were not in charge of.
I thought that was a wonderful feature of the scene. We should
remember that and treasure it, and be willing to do things in
the future, where politicians, in the national interest, do things
that they do notuntil they're ready to say what they have
to saysay to the media. So I wasn't worried about the media
pressure at all. I accept there are differing views about this
but, as I say, I think there was a very serious issue about the
financeability, at reasonable interest rates, of the UK's national
debt. Therefore, I think that there was a very serious reason
for having a Governmentof whatever dispositionin
place to deal with it, relatively rapidly, media or no media.
Mrs Laing: That is very
helpful. Thank you. Can we flip back again, to where you were
in explaining some of the content and the ideological position
of the negotiating parties? I will go to Christopher Chope on
Q96 Mr Chope:
I shall ask my good Dorset parliamentary colleague about this
three-way negotiation. We have heard that by the Monday morning
there was a draft confidence and supply agreement that had been
drawn up, which was in quite a lot of detail and running to several
pages, and in that there was the possibility of a provision for
a free vote in the House of Commons on whether or not there should
be an AV referendum. Is that correct?
Mr Letwin: It is
certainly correct that there was such a document. Rather like
witnesses in court, I'm afraid at this distance I'm absolutely
unable to remember which day was which and I can't tell you on
what day this document was ready or at which stage it was given
to whom. But, as I wrote the document in question, I do know that
there was one.
Q97 Mr Chope:
Is that a document that this Committee could see?
Mr Letwin: It is
not a public document. I don't know whether the Committee has
or has not the power to require it or to obtain it under the Freedom
of Information Act.
Q98 Mr Chope:
Would you be willing to make it a public document?
Mr Letwin: Personally,
unless forced to do so, no. I think it is right that the negotiations
should be regarded as negotiations that went on between two parties
and the final product of it, of course, was entirely public. But
I don't think it benefits the national interest for it to be seen
how it came about because, if that were the case, in a future
case everyone would know that it was going to be public and that
would alter what was one was willing to do and, I think, diminish
the chances of being able to negotiate successfully.
Q99 Mr Chope:
Leaving that on one side, we have heard from both Mr Laws and
Lord Adonis that there was never any discussion between the Liberal
Democrats and the Labour Party about the possibility of legislating
for AV without the people being consulted, either before or after.
Is that your understanding as well?
Mr Letwin: I have
not only read the account of Lord Adonis' remarks to you but also
have attended to what the Deputy Prime Minister said in the House
of Commons, and, as both parties to the Labour and Liberal side
have said what they have said, I assume that they're accurate.
It was certainly not our perception. Our perception was that there
was a very considerable risk that such concessions would be made.
If we were mistaken in that, then that is one of the features
of the scene in which one knows what one is saying to the other
party oneself, but one does not ultimately know exactly what they
are saying to each other.
Q100 Mr Chope:
So you recognise that, in retrospect, you were mistaken about
that, if you formed that perception?
Mr Letwin: I recognise
that both the participants to it have said that it was not as
advanced as we thought it was.
Q101 Mr Chope:
Yes. So then we get to the situation where the Conservative Parliamentary
Party has a meeting where the Prime Ministeror the Leader
of the Conservative Party as he then wasaddressed the parliamentary
party and was discussing with them whether to take the negotiations
further forward. And what was said by David Cameron was that there
was the real prospect that, if there wasn't a better offer from
the Conservatives, there would be a deal done between Labour and
the Liberal Democrats that would involve legislating for AV without
consulting the people through a referendum. You were there at
Mr Letwin: Yes,
that is what we believed.
Q102 Mr Chope:
That is what was said. In the BBC programme, Five days that
changed Britain, when it was put to him that he had misled
his MPs, David Cameron said, and I think I quote exactly, "No,
I was absolutely certain in my own mind that that was the case";
that this had happened. He then went on to say that he had good
reason to be certain because a number of people had told him that
that was the case. Were you among the people, or perhaps the person
who told him that you thought that that was the case?
Mr Letwin: I see.
No. Let me take it step-by-step. First of all, that is an exactly
accurate position that the Prime Minister relayed. We were persuaded
that it was the case that there would be, or there was a very
strong prospect of there being, an alternative offer from the
other side in the way that he described the parliamentary party.
It is certainly also the case that quite a lot of sources had
suggested that to us. I was not among those. You may know, after
our long acquaintance, that I am not a person who spends a great
deal of time gossiping in the corridors. I am the last person
to find things out. I have to trust those who are better at that.
It did seem to me that it was highly plausible that they would
and, incidentally, I think it is quite plausible that they would
have done. We don't know. We will never know whether they would
have made that offer if we hadn't. But it was not I who received
the information and relayed it. I simply heard it at more or less
the same time as the Prime Minister did.
Q103 Mr Chope:
We know that this information was incorrect. So are you able to
say who got the wrong end of the stick and was
Mr Letwin: No,
I don't think I should dwell on it.
Mr Chope: You don't think
you should what?
Mr Letwin: I said,
I don't think I
Mrs Laing: I think I must
protect Mr Letwin here. It is only fair that we can ask you, Mr
Letwin, to tell us what you think and what you were doing.
Mr Letwin: Indeed.
Mrs Laing: You can't answer for others.
Mr Letwin: I'm
grateful for that protection.
Q104 Mrs Laing: But it
is emerging, from what you have said and from what our previous
witnesses said that the understanding was not complete between
all of those who were negotiating.
Mr Letwin: Yes,
and let me go further than that. You do have to imagine yourself
into circumstances in which you don't even properly understand
what the people on the other side of the table from you are thinking.
They take good care not to tell you everything, after all. Still
less do you understand about what is going on between them and
someone else who is taking extremely good care not to tell you
anything at all. So this is a game of battleships. You're trying,
under those circumstances, to sense out what is going on and we
were trying to get a sense of "what would happen if",
and this can never be perfect information.
Q105 Mr Chope:
If you felt you were in the dark, how did you think your Conservative
colleagues in Dorset felt? We were completely in a blackout situation.
In concluding my questions, can I ask you whether you feel that
the concerns that were expressed during the latter part of the
election campaignthat a hung parliament would result in
negotiations behind closed doors, where the elected representatives
of the people were the last to know what was happeningwere
realised in practice by what happened in those five days?
Mr Letwin: Inevitably.
Q106 Mr Chope:
Do you think that on future occasions, if this was to happen,
there is a lot to be said for having more open and frank and transparent
discussions with the Members of Parliament in advance of any agreement
being drawn up?
Mr Letwin: I have
several things to say about that. The first is, I think you and
I both accurately represented to our electorates something that
you and I both, I think, still believecertainly, I dowhich
is that first-past-the-post is a good system because it tends
to produce majority Governments and that one of the disadvantages
of not having a majority Government emerging from an election
is, in my viewI am coming on to whyinevitably that
there will be closed-door negotiations between parties. I think
one follows the other as night from day. That is one of the reasons
why I persist in believing that first-past-the-post is a good
system. Now, first past the post was the system and it doesn't
always produce the result one hopes for of a majority Government.
In this case it didn't and I think it was inevitable, therefore,
that there would be negotiations behind closed doors.
No, I don't think you could possibly have an open
discussion beforehand about all the modalities. First of all,
as you and I very well knowand as all members of the Committee
will be awareyou cannot possibly assume that these would
then be secret. On the contrary, all the evidence over the years
suggests they would be well-known to everybody. Once you've had
an open discussion among hundreds of people it will be in the
newspapers within hours and if you go into a general election,
as your suggestion would entail, with the newspapers being able
to list all the negotiating positions of all three partiesor
the party, should there be a coalition discussionthen it
would be almost impossible to deal with the situation. Still more
so if one party did it and the others didn't, that party would
then be at a complete disadvantage. So I see no practical way
of doing that. I think the solution to the problem you are addressing
is to elect majority governments.
Q107 Mr Chope: Just a
quick question: leaving aside what happened before, after the
eventbetween the election, with the hung parliament, and
what followed on after thatdo you not think that the Liberal
Democrats in a sense, with much more consultation with their parliamentary
party, had a message to deliver to the Conservative Party, in
similar circumstances should they ever arise in the future?
Mr Letwin: I'm
not posing as a constitutional expert about the Liberal Democrat
Party but, as I understand it, they do have a much more organised
process. But it was not the case that they went through that process
before the election. As I understand it, they went through it
afterwards. Indeed, their negotiators kept on saying to us, I
think in perfectly good faith, that they couldn't do X, Y or Z
until they had been back and had consulted. I would observe, first,
that the number of MPs in the Liberal Democrat Party is very much
reduced; it's much easier to do, compared with the Conservative
Party, especially after the last election. But it would indeed
be possible to organise things in the Conservative Party so that
there was a more elaborated process for such things. I have no
axe to grind against that at all. It's obviously a matter to be
thought about within the party machinery. I think that there are
very good arguments for trying to formalise it. But I see all
that as a process that you might establish for dealing with the
situation after an election in which you didn't get a majority
verdict. I don't think you could do it before.
Mr Chope: Thank you very much.
Q108 Mrs Laing: Thank
you, that's very helpful. Would it be right to summarise what
you were saying by saying that where the electorate is indecisive
then their vote on election day is not the end of the decision-making
process, it's the beginning of the decision-making process?
Mr Letwin: Yes,
it is; I think inevitably. It is a very interesting reflection
that, on a certain Thursday in a certain month of a certain year,
the people of Britain collectively make a decision, and I slightly
believealthough I'm certain that I can't prove this propositionthat
there is such a thing as the collective wisdom of the nation and
that there is such a thing as a collective decision; although
no one individual is making that decision. Therefore, I slightly
believe that the people of Britain, at the last election, made
a decision that they wanted not to have a majority Government.
I regret that decision. I would have liked to have had a Conservative
majority Administration but I think that they told us, collectively
in Parliament, "Go and do something about the situation.
We don't want to have one party running this country". Therefore,
I think they effectively forced some kind of arrangement to be
made and I think the arrangement that emerged was vastly better
than any of the alternatives. But, of course, I'm biased about
Mrs Laing: The people
have decided and so on. That's it. Thank you.
Q109 Mr Turner: Could
I just ask youbecause you used these phrases that I take
it were reasonably representative of what you thinkyou
said, "An informal way in which people were consulted, for
example the members of our party"?
Mr Letwin: Yes,
the meetings of the 1922 Committee and so on.
Mr Turner: Yes. As I recall, there weren't
any meetings of that Committee.
Mr Letwin: Yes,
there were two greatso maybe it wasn't the formally the
1922 Committee; the meeting of the parliamentary party.
Mr Turner: That is different.
Mr Letwin: Sorry,
Q110 Mr Turner: You said
those meetings were very considerably wider. Could you just go
through what were the informal meetings that took place?
Mr Letwin: Primarily,
the meetings you will be very well aware of; the meetings of the
Mr Turner: Yes.
Mr Letwin: I don't
pose as an expert on the constitution of the Conservative Party
but, as I understand itI'm not a Conservative Party constitutional
expert at all; I'm personally much more interested in the constitution
of the countryin the Conservative Party's constitution
and rules generally, those meetings did not have a formal status.
I don't believe that there is a process; whereas, as I understand
it, in the Liberal Democrats' constitution there is a formal process.
I may be wrong about that. That's how I understand it.
Q111 Mr Turner: There
was one or did you say two meetings?
Mr Letwin: I think
there were two, weren't there? Do I not remember that?
Q112 Mr Turner:
When were they?
I am terribly sorry; as I mentioned before, I have absolutely
no recall of the exact date.
Mrs Laing: Let's try to
help. I recall two.
Mr Letwin: Yes.
I believe there were two separate meetings. This is a matter of
record and can be checked.
Mr Turner: Okay. Yes.
There were also all sorts of efforts of various kinds to consult
various persons and groups of people, includingI think
this is also a matter of public recorda moment at which
what was then the Shadow Cabinet was convened. Again, I'm terribly
sorry, I can't tell you exactly what day but I know that it was
convened because I was present at the meeting. No, I do not have
a precise list of all the people the Chief Whip and others spoke
to, but my point was all of that process was not a formal process
where there was a rulebook and things were done according to a
rulebook, which I think was what happened inside the Liberal Democrat
Party. I think that Mr Chope's suggestion, so to speak, is that,
either ex ante or ex post, there should be such a process in the
Conservative Party and I entirely understand that suggestion.
I can see the point of it.
Q113 Mr Turner: Earlier
on, you said it would be a good thing to have mature reflection,
I think. I am very concerned about this because the question is:
with the AV Bill and the timetable and hearing the argument about
the Salisbury Convention, as a member of the Conservative Party,
I don't feel that I committed myself to the AV and I don't feel
that I committed myself to the change in the number of MPs, both
of which are in the Bill and which are something I suspect other
people would agree with me. What is your response to that?
Mr Letwin: Clearly,
your view of your view is your view. I am in no position to question
that. The Conservative Party, in the person of the Leader of the
Conservative Party and with the approval of the Shadow Cabinet
of the Conservative Partywhich, as I understand it, are
the bodies that are empowered to make such decisions in the Conservative
Partymade a decision to agree a document in which those
things are placed.
Mr Turner: Yes, I accept that.
Mr Letwin: Of course,
that does not entail that every member of the Conservative Party
or every parliamentary colleague in the Conservative Party or,
still less, everybody who voted for the Conservative Party agreed
with it. Incidentally, that's true of every piece of legislation.
I mean it is the right, the proper right, of every backbencher
in the Conservative Party to take a view of legislation proposed.
Mr Turner: It's a different
Q114 Mrs Laing: Andrew,
if I can stop you for one second, I will put the question to Mr
Letwin that the Committee put to both of our witnesses last week,
which was very simply: in your opinion, does a coalition agreement
have the same force as a party manifesto, an election manifesto?
Mr Letwin: No,
they're completely different kinds of document. Without wishing
to be naïve enough to assume that very many people in the
country read election manifestos, much as I wish they would, it
is nevertheless the case that a lot of journalistic attention,
at least, is paid to manifestos and that it is at least open to
voters to read the manifesto and that some votersmaybe
a higher proportion of those making up their mind than those already
settled in their convictionsdo read manifestos, or read
summaries of manifestos, or read summaries of the manifestos in
the newspapers and elsewhere. Therefore, at least I think one
can say that some of the main lines of the manifesto probably
have some influence on the outcome of a general election.
Mrs Laing: Indeed, whereas, a coalition
agreement can't because it's not in existence.
Mr Letwin: The
coalition agreement manifestly can't because it isn't in existence
at the time of a general election. It is a totally different status
Mrs Laing: That is very helpful, thank
you. I'm going to Simon to follow up that point and then to Tristram
on the other point.
Q115 Simon Hart: It's
a very quick add-on: in a sense it's a bit more serious than that,
isn't it, because within the House of Lords there is the Salisbury
Convention, whether we believe it remains valid or notthe
Hansard study has some views on thatit does tend to take
into serious account manifesto commitments. What nobody seems
to be able to answer, and perhaps you can, is whether the Salisbury
Convention applies at allyou might be able to answer thisin
relation to a coalition commitment? I think it's a bit more than
just saying that a manifesto commitment is different. We know
it's different but it has a constitutional implication in the
House of Lords when it comes to the implementation of Government
Mr Letwin: I'm
afraid that you would need to speak to the Leader of the House
of Lords, and others, about the operation of the Salisbury Convention
in the House of Lords. I don't pretend to be an expert on the
arcana imperii of the House of the Lords, but I entirely
accept that a coalition agreement is not a document on which the
British public have voted. It is a document that emerges from
a discussion between politicians for whose parties, in varying
degrees, the British public have voted. Whether that is material,
from the point of view of the House of Lords or otherwise, I don't
know and you would need to talk to those who are experts about
it, and I'm sure that the Committee will wish to explore that.
If it does wish to explore it, it will call witnesses who are
expert about it. But I think we have to be clear that these are
two quite different kinds of documents.
Mrs Laing: Thank you very much. We will
have to conclude fairly quickly, but Tristram had a question from
earlier and then there's one more general point we'd like to come
Q116 Tristram Hunt: Just
to drill down very briefly on what Mr Chope was pushing at, in
terms of the commitment to the AV referendum, we've heard from
those involved in the Labour Party negotiations thatin
the words of Lord Adonisthey were not interested in what
he regarded as sort of constitutional gerrymandering and said
that the Labour Party regarded it as a non-starter, in terms of
their negotiating position; agreeing to AV legislation without
Mr Letwin: Before
you go on, may I just observe that if that was indeed the case
it was slightly odd, in the light of the parliamentary record,
because the Labour Party had voted for such a thing.
Tristram Hunt: In what
Mr Letwin: In the
Mrs Laing: As a matter of fact, it is
correct. The then Labour Government had in a Bill that fell just
before the general election, that there would be an AV referendum.
It was law at that point.
Mr Letwin: Yes.
Tristram Hunt: A referendum?
Mr Letwin: Yes.
Tristram Hunt: Yes. We're talking about
legislation without referendum.
Mr Letwin: I'm
sorry. I thought you said "referendum".
Tristram Hunt: No. The suggestion from
Andrew Adonis was that the Liberal Democrats' starting point was
to have AV legislation without a referendum and maybe having a
Mr Letwin: I'm
Tristram Hunt: So the
Labour Party position was always that this was not a runner. What
Mr Letwin: I'm
terribly sorry, but you're telling me something very interesting.
May I just ask about this? Are you telling me
Tristram Hunt: That was
in Lord Adonis' evidence to us.
Mr Letwin: Yes.
I hadn't caught this. Are you saying that Lord Adonis said that
the Liberal Democrat negotiators said to the Labour Party that
they did want to have AV legislation without referendum?
Tristram Hunt: Shall I read you the quote
Mr Letwin: Please,
yes, that would be very helpful.
Tristram Hunt: "And among the proposals
they put to us"the Liberal Democrats"was
the proposal that we should agree to the alternative vote before
a referendum was held. We should implement it; we should implement
legislation for the alternative vote before a referendum was held.
That was the point at which we made it clear we could not agree
with them on a key constitutional measure."
Mr Letwin: Right.
Q117 Tristram Hunt: So
that was not a starting point for the Labour Party. But what we've
heard today is that you came to the Conservative Party, you heard
from sourceswhich you quite rightly have not revealedthat
this was running. So either you're a terrible poker player, or
you were thrown a dummy by the Liberal Democrats and agreed to
all sorts of measures that you're now having to put through Parliament
with a straight face, which were not necessarily something you
had to do?
Mr Letwin: Hold
on. First of all, you said something very interesting to me, historicallywhich
is, I think, only of historical but nevertheless of very considerable
interestwhich is, even if we were mistaken that the Labour
Party had offered this, if the report you're reading out is accurate,
it was something that had been asked for.
Tristram Hunt: Yes.
Mr Letwin: That
may well have been, coming back to Mr Chope's question, the source
of the confusion. That is to say, it may well have beenit
often does happen in these affairs, does it notthat the
slight but crucial difference between proposition A, something
was asked for, and proposition B, something was offered, became
lost somewhere in the transmission mechanism to us in this campaign.
Tristram Hunt: Either
deliberately or not deliberately.
Mr Letwin: For
whatever reason, yes. That could possibly be, yes. It could more
than possibly be. I have no knowledge of it of course but I can
now well imagine what might have happened. Why it happened, and
who made it happen that way, I have genuinely no idea, as a matter
of fact; although I certainly wouldn't reveal to the Committee
if I had. But I don't, as a matter of fact. But that may be the
explanation of what did occur and why we were led to believe that
that was the case. To clarify my response earlier; I am sorry,
I had thought that you were saying that Lord Adonis had said that
it was a non-starter for them to have even an AV referendum.
Tristram Hunt: No.
Mr Letwin: That
would have been very wrong because we knew that they had voted
for one and that, as the Chairman says, it was then kind of the
Q118 Mrs Laing: Thank
you; that does help. I think, in trying to clarify this point,
we seem to be digging up more and more mud. It becomes all the
less clear the more we go into it, but it has become very clear
to this Committee that obviously there was confusion. But then,
as you said, Mr Letwin, that is the nature of negotiation when
one side doesn't know what the other side is really offering,
and I think Mr Hunt's analogy of poker is probably fairly accurate.
If we maywe're running over timecan
I come to a very particular issue, and that is the issue of the
Cabinet Manual. Was the Cabinet Manual of use to you when you
began these negotiations? It clearly wasn't absolutely the first
thing that you went to and said, "Oh, let's find the Cabinet
Mr Letwin: I'm
trying to formulate exactly a truthful answer. It is true that,
knowing what the practice was in certain areaslike, does
the sitting Prime Minister have a right to go on sitting, or is
it an established practice that the Prime Minister has a right
to go on sitting as Prime Minister until certain things happenwas
very useful to us. That is to say, in this fog of war, having
any point of clarity about anything is useful. It was useful to
us, therefore, to know, to the extent one can know, what the practice
was in a respect like that, and any document that helped us to
understand that was, therefore, useful.
Mrs Laing: Yes.
Mr Letwin: But
you asked me quite precisely the question, "Was the Cabinet
Manual useful?"the draft that was then exposedand
I think the truthful answer to that is: at that juncture it wasn't
but for a particular reason, which was that, extremely helpfully,
the Cabinet Secretary had so arranged mattersI think he'll
tell you with permission of the then Prime Ministerthat
he was able to offer advice about the constitutional proprieties
to all parties.
Mrs Laing: Right. So in
Mr Letwin: We didn't
have to look at the Manual because we could meet the man.
Mrs Laing: You could meet the man.
Mr Letwin: And
ask quite precise questions and have them very clearly and very
comprehensively answered. It was that helpful provision of advice
by officials that was the thing that really helped us. I'm not
at all confident that we would have understood the situation sufficiently
if we simply had to rely on however clear a document we were able
Mrs Laing: Much better
to have a discussion about the document with the person who had
pulled those matters together.
Mr Letwin: Have
a proper discussion, exactly.
Q119 Mrs Laing: That
is very helpful, thank you. Since we are looking, overall in this
Committee, at the arguments for or against a written constitution,
and having a general inquiryover a number of years, we
hopeabout developments in the constitution, should the
Cabinet Manual as such, given that it now exists and has been
acted upon, be in the public domain? This is the question that
the Chairmanhad he been herewould have liked to
have taken very seriously: should such a document be in the public
Mr Letwin: This
is a personal view. I think it is useful to have in the public
domain a document that accurately, or as accurately as can be
managed, describes the various practices that are established.
Mrs Laing: Yes.
Mr Letwin: And
not just in the domain of that first chapter but in other areas
of the conduct of Government. I hope that the Government will
come to the point of agreeing sufficiently with other political
parties to get to a document that is able to be published; it
is of the essence that it should not be partisan in any respect.
Mrs Laing: Of course, yes.
Mr Letwin: It should
be seen to be a fair summary of existing practice and constitutional
experts outside politics, professors and jurists, should have
looked at it and find it to be as accurate a summary as can be
managed, and so on. So if one can get to the stage where there's
a document that is widely accepted as non-partisan and reasonably
authoritative, then I think there is a major advantage in having
that out in the public domain. I think some of the issues about
how you do things would then be clearer and clarity seems to me
Mrs Laing: That's extremely helpful.
The value of a fixed-term Parliamentthere's time to do
that. But, if I may, Mr Williams would like a quick question about
preparations before the election.
Q120 Stephen Williams:
Yes, Chair. Could I ask Mr Letwin: when was the Conservative negotiating
team appointed by David Cameron? Was it subsequent to the election
or were you in place and prepared just in case there was a hung
Mr Letwin: There
was not a negotiating team established until the negotiations
began, but I would be misleading you if I were to suggest that
there were no discussions about these matters before the moment
of the negotiations beginning. Unluckily, I cannot exactly remember
the date, but there was certainly a time slightly before the date
of the general election itself, during the election campaign,
when it became apparent that there might be a result of this kind.
Up until the moment of the election campaign we were simply gearing
up to try to win the election, as you might imagine. During the
early stages of the election campaign we were trying simply to
win the election. Most of our effort continued to be trying to
win the general election throughout, but there were discussions
at a late stage of the election campaign and we did, at that stage,
begin to study what we might be having to deal with in order to
prepare ourselves if we couldn't get past the finishing post and
get a majority Government. But there was no negotiating team established
until literally the votes were in and we knew what the situation
Q121 Stephen Williams:
You said that you'd read Lib Dem policy documents, which is rather
comforting, having had a hand in writing some of them. Was that
well before the election?
Mr Letwin: You
must understand, as my Conservative colleagues understand, that
I'm a complete anorak. So I had spent months reading and analysing
other parties' policy documents and manifestos, and I had developed
a fairly clear understanding, I think, of the essence of Liberal
Party policy in a wide range of areas. Of course, at the beginning
of the election, I obtained a copy of the Liberal Party's election
manifesto, as soon as it was published, and I began to read that.
This would have happened anyway, completely regardless. If we
had been sailing to a majority of 200 or doomed to defeat and
obliteration, I would still have been reading the Liberal Party
documents because that is what I do and it has always interested
me to understand our opponents and their policies.
So we had a fairly developed understanding, not just
of the manifesto but of where the manifesto had come from, how
it had evolved, what positions had been taken, who inside the
Liberal Democrat Party had taken those positions, why they had
altered, and so forth. We were fairly thoroughly intellectually
prepared for the exercise of the negotiation and, as I say, I'm
quite proud of the fact that we correctly identifiedit
became apparent in the first few minutes of the negotiations that
we had correctly identifiedwhat the sticking points were.
Solving them is another thing, but you can't get a successful
negotiation of a very complicated and extremely important thing
like a Government unless you start with a pretty good working
knowledge of where you have differences that have to be ironed
It may be helpful for the Committee if I remind people
that this was very much a two-stage process, and we recognised
from the very beginningthe first daythat it would
have to be a two-stage process. The crunch issues had to be resolved
in a satisfactory manner in order to enable us to form any kind
of Government, whether a minority with an agreement about how
it would operate or a coalition agreement. But it was also clear
that if we could get to a coalition agreement and form such a
Government there would be much else that we would need to resolve.
I had also assured myself that it would be possible
within a very short space of time to go through the other, I think,
431 items that would need to be resolved. The reason I had assured
myself of that is because I had studied the other things in our
documents, that I had been partially responsible for producing,
and in the documents that the Liberal Democrats had produced.
So once we got past the coalition agreement itselfit's
important to recognise that was not the point at which the Programme
for Government was establishedinto the early days of
the Government, the very early days of the Government, in a very
short space of time, Danny Alexander and I, and some others, were
able to identify and agree on the entire set of propositions in
the Programme for Government, as quickly as I had anticipated
we would be able to; because, excepting those small number of
very difficult issues that we had resolved in the early days,
most of the rest were very closely aligned.
There were differences, but we had also identified
where those lesser differences lay and it was, therefore, relatively
easy to agree all the things that we could agree in minutes, in
minutes, and then to start discussing the things that took a little
longer but were not so difficult as the crunch issues. So it was
a layered process and it was layered because we had a very clear
understanding of the position of our colleagues.
Q122 Mrs Laing: Thank
you. That has given us a very good insight into what happened
and will help inform us as we consider the question of how coalitions
are formed. One last little question, if I may; the question,
again, of the Cabinet Manual. Do you envisage a datenot
a precise datea time in the future at which it might properly
be published if it's refined, considered and, as you rightly said,
looked at by academics and others?
Mr Letwin: I don't,
but I hope that it might not be too long. I think the most important
thing is that it should be right and that it should become a matter
of consensus before it's published, but the sooner the better.
Mrs Laing: That's extremely helpful,
thank you. Thank you very much for giving us so much of your time.
It has been truly enlightening.
Mr Letwin: Thank
you for informing me about something I didn't know.
Mrs Laing: Any time.