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News Andrew Adonis interview: 'I learned to survive very young'
Lord Adonis' challenging start in life – he was in care as a boy – shaped his political perspective. His new book provides his own fascinating account of the five days that gave us the coalition
In an extraordinary series of photographs of Gordon Brown's last moments at No 10 by the Guardian's Martin Argles, Andrew Adonis appears twice: as a small, pale visage peering over Peter Mandelson's shoulder at the Browns and their children taking their leave, and earlier, while the inner circle waited for Nick Clegg's final decision. Almost everyone is bowed over their phones or slumped, exhausted, into corners (none had slept much for at least five days), but Adonis, standing next to Alastair Campbell, looks positively boyish.
It is, in fact, somewhat surprising that he was there at all. From the point in 1998 when he left his job as a columnist on the Observer to become an education adviser, via his elevation to head of the policy unit in 2001, to the House of Lords and then as minister for schools, he was seen as a Blairite, through and through. In fact, he was so convinced that a Brown government would have no place for him and his ideas – especially academies, about which he was evangelical – that he started packing his books away even before Tony Blair stood down. In the event, it turned out that there wasn't an issue with the policy. "It was just," he says now, "that it came from the wrong stable."
His books still look as if they're either in the process of being packed or unpacked. On one side of the office he shares with Lord Smith of Leigh is a teetering pile of political studies, biographies, autobiographies – Brown at 10, Whither Opportunity?, The End of Politics, Outside In. On another, there are open cardboard boxes full of a polemic he published last year, Education, Education, Education: Reforming England's Schools. There is an enormous portrait of Gladstone, and a picture of Great Dixter, East Sussex; underneath it is a map of the rail system before the Beeching cuts, a reminder of the post he filled in government with just as much zeal, that of minister of state for transport.
Even though Adonis has just turned 50 and his hair is greying and disappearing, the impression of boyishness persists. Partly it's because he is slight, hollow-chested and birdlike; partly it's the sense of idealistic energy and an almost unfeasible upbeatness, even when reflecting on the hardest times of what has been, at some early points, a distinctly difficult life.
We meet to discuss Adonis's new book, 5 Days in May, which documents the period immediately following the inconclusive 2010 election. One of the many salutary things that comes through in the book is the extent to which the markets and media pressure ("Simply getting in and out of the building became an ordeal") forced a rate of deliberation that now seems simply reckless, given what was at stake. That and the fact that Labour – despite theoretically possessing some of the best strategic heads in the business – had failed to prepare for the possibility of a coalition, meaning that they were writing policy papers overnight, on the hoof, on the back of an exhausting and difficult general election. This process made even more difficult, in Adonis's estimation, by the number of people who had basically given up: David Blunkett, John Reid, even Blair, who argued that it was a "serious error" to keep fighting. "Labour should have fought with every sinew in 2010 to retain power," Adonis writes. "To give up power voluntarily because you are tired of government and it is all too difficult is a betrayal of the people you serve. In politics, exhaustion and attrition need to be overcome, not indulged."
The first half of the book is a blow-by-blow account of those five days, a drama whose tension is undiminished by the fact that we all know the ending. Of the dramatis personae (it is a nice touch to list it as such in the beginning), Brown comes across as committed, decisive, resilient and entirely honourable. "I came to develop quite an admiration for Gordon," Adonis says (betraying, perhaps, something of how he felt before). Not so for Clegg. His assessment of the Lib Dem leader then and now is of bad faith, fatal weakness and strategic failure. Clegg was, he says, "completely blasé" about, and in fact committed to, the Osborne austerity plan, and by deciding not to take a big department for either himself or any of his colleagues, he gave up a golden opportunity for real power that he has never been able to regain. Above all, Clegg's negotiations with Labour were entirely hollow, designed first to extract as much as possible from the Tories (a strategy that, in important areas such as Europe, totally failed) and second, to give the left-leaning side of his party the sense that they might be being listened to. In fact, that was never going to happen because, as became increasingly clear, Clegg, apart from his stance on Europe, is essentially a Tory. "I think that's part of the reason why the Lib Dems are very politically weak at the moment," he says. "People have sussed out that the real Nick Clegg didn't agree with large chunks of the programme he fought the last election on."
There will be people who argue that on a couple of key points there isn't a lot of difference between Adonis and the Tories either – specifically, HS2, which was his big idea as minister of state for transport, and especially academies – though there will equally be people, including himself, who argue that that is his strength: that he can see how important it is to view policies on their own merits. "The biggest mistake oppositions make is committing themselves to reversing things simply because they're in opposition. The right approach is the Tony Blair mantra: the best policy is the best policy. So you work out what the best policy is and that's what you do, and if that means agreeing with the other side, then you don't do it by halves."
What is it like to see the opposition take over your pet project? "Well, insofar as they're continuing to establish academies as replacements for under-performing schools, I support their policy, and I support the setting up of free schools in areas where there's a need for school places. What I don't support is wasting money on setting up schools where there isn't a need for places, when we have a massive crisis on our hands in terms of pupil numbers and needing school places. And I think on the curriculum and on exam reform, Michael Gove has been off the pace." How? "Well, the biggest challenge we face as a country at the moment is mass youth unemployment and nearly half of school-leavers leaving school without anything worthwhile to do, and to my mind, that's a national crisis. The next phase of education should be about creating good, technical qualifications and a massive increase in the number of good-quality apprenticeships. The government is nowhere to be seen on that issue."
Estelle Morris once said that when it came down to it, she suspected Adonis's concern was for the middle classes. He responds: "I've always believed in one nation even when it wasn't entirely fashionable inside the Labour party … and I believe one nation means building a really solid alliance between the classes. If I look at the really significant achievements of the last Labour government, creating cross-class schools that bind together the middle class and the working class in a single community, all focused on high standards, social responsibility and social mobility is what it's all about."
Adonis himself has to be one of the most graphic – and frankly unusual – examples of social mobility. One of his longest silences comes when I ask him for his earliest memory. Fifteen sober seconds pass, an age for someone who thinks and talks as quickly as he does. "Do you know, I'd rather not talk about it, because I have got a very first memory but it's too – it's too horrible." Adonis's father is Greek Cypriot, who came to this country at 18. He worked first as a commis waiter, and then as a postman for 30 years. He was an ardent trade unionist, a rep in what's now the Communication Workers union in Hampstead sorting office. He has lived in the same council flat in Camden since 1965. He purchased it soon after Thatcher instituted the right to buy, "in the face of really bitter hostility from Camden council. He had one or two things to say about the Labour party and how it was not on the side of aspiration and people getting on, and I think he sort of had his finger on the pulse."
His parents split when he was young. His mother, according to a Daily Mail reporter who tracked her down in 2005, had met someone else; his father, she alleged, threatened her away. Whatever the case, he got custody and she has not seen her son since. Did you read the interview? "I did. Yeah, well you tend to read things about yourself." And what was that like? "Pretty horrible."
His father was working long hours and couldn't cope, and he and his sister were taken into care. It was lucky that the home – as he puts it in Education, Education, Education – was run, until he was 11, by a brisk and disciplined Baptist they called Auntie Gladys. When she was followed by "an extremely bad [manager]" things descended "from an orderly environment into a dangerous free-for-all in the course of a fortnight": the experience taught him to keep his head down to survive, and that "it's leadership that matters" (he is in favour of strong leaders, and Cameron does not cut it). "It's very, very important not to in any way be self-pitying. Developing survival skills in life is incredibly important and I was very lucky that I developed them at a very young age."
But it is also important to balance these things with a core of belief, or you lose yourself. "[One should] always be accommodating, but not give an inch on things that matter. In my experience of politics, it's the people who constantly trim who often get buried."
His later experience, at a boarding school in the Cotswolds (his care home manager, who became a kind of surrogate mother, persuaded Camden council to organise it) and then at Oxford, gave him the intellectual confidence with which to back up his moral convictions. But he says: "I still feel like a fish out of water at the House of Lords, and that's seven years on."
What lessons should Labour learn from May 2010? Prepare, prepare, prepare, to borrow a formulation. Prepare for coalition, even when you are fighting all out for a majority. Be generous, and willing to offer coalition partners major offices of state. Put together (this largely applies to the Lib Dems) a credible manifesto. "If you've got a whole wish-list of silly items like abolishing tuition fees outright, then it's no surprise that when face-to-face with power, betrayal is the first thing that happens." Talk to opposing leaders, build good relations. Clegg's remark to Brown, midway through talks, that, "I wish we'd had the chance to get to know each other better before" was not just a polite nicety but pointed to a dereliction on both sides with huge ramifications. Be "as conversant with [the other party's] policies as they are themselves". But above all, understand that these preparations are not defeatist. Rather, says the man who has survived, and thrived, against great odds, all these preparations are "part and parcel of being serious about power".