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A week in politics I will never forget

14th May 2010

Jonathan Djanogly writes for the Hunts Post.

An election campaign is an exciting and memorable experience whether a candidate is fighting for the first time or, as for me, the fourth time. The highs and lows of the national campaign of course impact on your local efforts – so long days on the doorstep locally are followed by armchair TV analysis of the wider issues in the evening. They are also physically demanding and several pairs of shoes will be worn out over the month. Some things like wandering through markets saying hello to hundreds of people, many of whom you have never met before, can seem a bit surreal. But accessing voters and giving them the opportunity to ask you questions is what it is all about.

I always like the first hustings when you come face to face with your opponents, which makes the whole experience more real. All seats have their own distinct feel and in a partly rural seat like Huntingdon there are four towns and some forty villages; each with its own distinct issues.

On the doorstep the overriding issues are the economy (especially jobs), followed by immigration and then savings and pensioner type matters. Important local issues, such as the A14 and Hinchingbrooke hospital come up rarely, indicating perhaps that voters understand that this election is about really vital big picture issues. The feeling that there is a need for a change of government runs very strong and it rapidly becomes apparent that this is not going to be a good election for the Labour Party. Yet the polls are swinging backwards and forwards as the impact of Nick Clegg’s performance in the televised debates is assessed and then re-assessed by the public.

The good thing about the debates is that they have made a wider cross section of the public aware of the Parties’ positions on key policy areas. The problem though is that they concentrate people’s attention on the Party leaders in a presidential style, when of course people actually vote for Party platforms and individual MP’s rather than Party leaders. Some also argue that it is more Xfactor than policy assessment. In any event, it has been popular with voters given viewing figures.

Election night 2010 was a strange one for me. As I stayed up watching most of my colleagues win their seats, the Huntingdon seat was only one of about 20 that delayed the count to Friday. Going to bed thinking of all those unopened ballot boxes sitting in the Ivo centre is not the best recipe for a good night’s sleep it has to be said. I do hope we move back to Thursday counts with all the excitement of being part of a national event, swing-o-meter and all.

I was pleased with my result and very proud to be given the opportunity to represent Huntingdonshire for a further term. But always, for me, election victories are bitter sweet. To win is great and not to have to walk six to eight hours a day canvassing is also good. However, there is something in the teamwork and spirit of campaigning and meeting thousands of people that I find energising. When my (superb) team breaks up after the count, there is an element of sadness.

But national events start moving quickly. Labour have clearly heavily lost this election and the LibDems are also five net seats down. Yet it is clear that the Conservatives do not have an absolute majority despite taking more seats (108) than at any time since 1931. A closer look at the results shows many inconsistent polls with us taking a number of safe Labour seats yet losing some of our primary targets. However, the people have spoken and decided to give the country a hung Parliament – something that Conservatives have dreaded.

Negotiations start with LibDems over the weekend and Labour also pitch for a coalition. This is starting to look really complicated.

The problem with coalitions and, by extension, proportional representation is that the election is only ever the start of the process which ends with direct negotiations between parties. This makes Party manifestos little more than wish lists rather than promises to deliver. Furthermore it gives power to the minority party rather than the winning party. Of course, if we had PR, we would have this situation after every election and in many countries coalition negotiations can drag on for weeks or months.

On Monday I head back to Westminster and am pleasantly surprised to see that my pass, my key and computer have all been reactivated. A good number of constituency casework issues have come in during the campaign and more since polling day, so there is plenty for me to be getting on with. New members however will not receive rooms for a week or two which means that they are required to “squat” in temporary offices. The first day back for re-elected MP’s is similar to going back to school after the long holidays – with everyone swapping notes and stories from their campaigns. The irony of the possibility of a deal with opponents, who we have just had a bitter struggle with at the hustings, is not lost on colleagues. That night we are called into a committee room to be briefed by David Cameron on the election outcome and its implications for government.

The sight of 306 Tory MP’s as I enter the room, was one I shall never forget. The numbers alone are now very significant, also much younger and many more women. Indeed, a full 49% of my Tory colleagues are newly elected. David Cameron enters the room and the cheering nearly blows the roof off.

After talking about the election and thanking us for our efforts, David Cameron gets straight to the point.

The idea, attractive to many Conservatives and national media, that we can govern as a minority government is quickly knocked into touch by DC. This is simply not an option without LibDem tacit support and they have said that they will only accept a coalition. Given the imminent danger to our economy and the overwhelming need to cut the deficit, the national interest dictates that we attempt to achieve a working majority on a coalition basis. There are very big differences between Conservatives and LibDems; not least that we do not accept PR, we wish to start cutting expenditure immediately, we do not accept the Euro and we want to cut immigration levels. But there are also big areas of agreement on the economy, education policy, civil liberties, parliamentary reform and the NHS. Realistically a deal will require movement on both sides.

The key sticking point is voting reform where we cannot accept PR but, on a last offer basis, DC says that he intends to support a referendum on the Alternative Vote system, which Conservatives could oppose. The meeting unanimously backs our Leader and his team to progress with negotiations.

Later on we hear clarification that Labour is indeed making a last ditch effort to woo the LibDems by dumping Gordon Brown, offering immediate AV and a referendum on PR. Many colleagues feel that Lord Mandelson could have “dished us”. Personally, I have no such fear. I just cannot see how the LibDems would wish to prop up a losing government, with yet another unelected leader. Labour simply look desperate and we have the numbers to provide an absolute majority, whilst a Lib/Lab pact would still need other minority parties to achieve a majority. This of course also assumes that the (as of yet unconsulted) Labour MP’s will be happy getting into bed not only with the LibDems, but also with the Nationalists whom they generally detest.

After yet more haggling, the Party reaches agreement with the LibDems on Tuesday evening. After 13 years, we have a Conservative Prime Minister once again and the volume of the reception for our new Prime Minister at the 10 pm Party meeting clearly reflects that fact.

I was delighted to be asked by David Cameron to join the government as Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice. This presents me with a new and exciting challenge – update to follow in due course.

The terms of the coalition deal are comprehensive and significant concessions are to be given by both sides; the LibDems will also get a significant number of ministers. Many colleagues do have misgivings on political or policy grounds and I do receive messages from constituents all, to some degree, warning against offering too much to our minority partners. I understand these feelings very well but, most importantly, I do believe that this proposal represents a significant and immediate attempt to look at the big picture and to act in the national interest to sort out our country and address the deep structural problems that we face.

Whether the coalition finally works; history will decide. However you play with the hand you are dealt, not what you would like to have been given. This means that we now need to give the coalition our best shot over the next five years to provide a better future for all of us. For inspired leadership and raising the game, David Cameron is very much the man of the moment.

Jonathan Djanogly MP

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