The Kirkwood/Darling back-channel: a timeline

Interesting comment in the Guardian today:

Authoritative sources have told the Guardian that talks between Mr
Brown and Sir Menzies were more advanced than either man’s camp has so
far admitted. It emerged that Lord Kirkwood, Sir Menzies’ senior aide,
and Alistair Darling, the trade secretary and ally of the chancellor,
have had several discussions in recent days. (Guardian)

In an attempt to figure out what has been going on, I have expanded on Nick Robinson’s timeline with some relevant stories from the last couple of months. I would be grateful for any suggestions for additions.

Sunday, 6 May

Scottish Liberal Democrat MSPs meet over the weekend following the Holyrood elections. Although some want to see what Alex Salmond is offering, hardliners win out. The Lib Dems decide to refuse coalition talks with the SNP unless they drop their commitment to an independence referendum as a precondition to negotiations.

ALEX Salmond is facing the prospect of trying to run Scotland with a
minority SNP government after the Lib Dems refused to get involved in
detailed coalition talks.

Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, spoke to Mr Salmond on
the phone last night and gave the SNP leader an ultimatum: drop your
plans for a referendum on independence or there will be no coalition
talks. (Scotsman)

IN LONDON, there were rumours that Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal
Democrat leader, had been putting pressure on Mr Stephen not to do a
deal with the SNP, and that Gordon Brown was looking
for Lib Dem help in stopping Mr Salmond. But these were denied by a Lib
Dem source. "Quite simply, the decision is going to be made by Nicol
and his colleagues," the source said. "Mr Salmond has the right to try
to form an Executive, and if Labour thinks we are going to try to deny
them that right, they have another think coming." (Scotsman)

Monday, 7 May

It emerges that Brown and Campbell have had talks about the situation in Scotland:

  The Liberal Democrats had been cast in the role of kingmakers as the SNP and Labour search for partners to build a ruling coalition. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, have discussed the situation twice, fuelling speculation they were attempting to reach an agreement.

  But the Scottish Liberal Democrats are independent of London and Sir Menzies, still facing questions over his leadership, is not seen to be in a strong enough position to lay down the law.Tavish Scott, who ran the Liberal Democrat election campaign, insisted the party would not come to Labour’s rescue. (Independent)

Wednesday, 9 May

Neal Ascherson argues that the Lib Dems’ stance only makes sense if there has been a Brown-Campbell deal:

The terms would run like this. In Scotland, the Scottish Lib-Dems will boycott all contacts with
Alex Salmond and instead join an unofficial "unionist bloc" of Labour,
Tories and Lib-Dems at Holyrood. The bloc (already nicknamed "the
unholy alliance") would treat the SNP ministers as outlaws, despite
their democratic mandate. It would oppose and frustrate every attempt
they made to govern until the SNP-led Scottish executive collapsed and
the minority government resigned.

return, Gordon Brown would look kindly on the Liberal Democrats if – as
seems possible – the next United Kingdom elections in 2009 destroy
Labour’s absolute majority and produce a hung parliament at
Westminster. Then there could be a Lib-Lab coalition at the British level;
and – if Brown is feeling especially grateful – some assurance that
proportional representation would be introduced for Westminster
elections. (openDemocracy)

Monday, 28 May

Martin Bright considers whether Gordon Brown is changing his position on PR.

At the launch of Gordon Brown for Britain, the prime-minister-to-be
even seemed to be suggesting that he could invite senior Liberal
Democrats into the cabinet. Or was he?

The Delphic nature of the Chancellor’s pronouncements is beginning to
flummox even those who speak fluent Gordon. There is, for instance, an
intense discussion among Brown’s allies about exactly what he said when
questioned at the Fabian Society’s hustings on the issue of electoral
reform. (New Statesman)

Monday, 4 June

Adam Boulton reports the thinking of prominent Brownites on a ‘Government of all the talents’

"Will we offer jobs to Liberal Democrats?" mused one. "I’d say it’s
more a question of when. Now, from a position of strength; in the
run-up to the general election when we may need to; or afterwards, when
we may have to."

Could Brown really be about to invite Lib Dems
to join his cabinet – Menzies Campbell as foreign secretary, say, and
Nick Clegg at Environment? Unlikely maybe, but I have encountered few
prepared to dismiss the idea entirely. (New Statesman)

Monday, 18 June


Ming Campbell is invited to meet Gordon Brown. Brown makes a surprise
offer of junior ministerial jobs for a handful of Lib Dem peers –
thought to include Lord Ashdown, Lord Lester, Baroness Neuberger and
Lord Carlile. Ming says that he needs to think about it. Another
meeting is planned for the following day. (BBC)


Ming discuses the offer with his Chief of Staff Ed Davey and his friend
and fixer Lord (Archie) Kirkwood. They say that they decided to turn
down the offer. They agree that Kirkwood will act as Lib Dem point man
liaising with Gordon Brown’s friend, and likely successor as
Chancellor, Alastair Darling.

Later Paddy Ashdown finds a pink note in his House of Lords message
box inviting him to call Gordon Brown’s office to fix a meeting. This
is fixed for Wednesday. Ashdown sees his party leader to discuss. They
agree that Ashdown should not take a ministerial job but should go
ahead and see Brown in case he has another offer to make (BBC)

Tuesday, 19 June

The second Ming/Gordon meeting is cancelled due to diary pressures. (BBC)

Wednesday, 20  June

A Guardian ‘staff reporter’ breaks the story of the Brown-Campbell contacts:

Gordon Brown and Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader,
have held private discussions in recent days about a plan for one or
two senior Lib Dems to join Mr Brown’s first cabinet, the Guardian has
been told by a well-placed source.

It is being emphasised that the discussions have not been about a coalition and may not have been conclusive. (Guardian)

The story names Vince Cable and Nick Clegg as potential Lib Dem cabinet Ministers. It also includes comments from the Treasury, Menzies Campbell’s spokesman and Lord Kirkwood, all dismissing the Guardian’s claims as ‘speculation’ – a classic non-denial denial. 

It is only later, reacting to the story , that Menzies Campbell rules out the possibility of Lib Dems joining the Cabinet.

Sir Menzies said: "There is no prospect of any Liberal Democrat joining the government."

Aides to the Lib Dem leader acknowledged that the two men had held talks, but refused to say what was discussed.

The party did confirm that Sir Menzies was keen to
work with Brown on his proposals for constitutional reform. The prime
minister-elect is thinking of launching an all-party initiative on the

"There are certain things that we will want to work on in a cross-party way," a Lib Dem aide told the Press Association.

"One of the things we have been pushing on quite heavily is the constitutional convention." (


A Dail Mail reporter blogs an interesting titbit about the provenance of the Guardian story:

Westminster rumour has it that it came from a briefing by Lord Ashdown
to Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian editor, which explains the "staff
reporter" byline. It’s true that the Chancellor wants to find ways of
bringing people from outside the Labour family into front-line roles,
but with the Lib Dems tanking in the polls, he’s under no pressure to
reach out to the yellow peril. The truth is he’s fairly contemptuous of
the Lib Dems and what they stand for. This story says far more about
growing doubts inside the party about Sir Ming’s leadership. (Benedict Brogan’s political blog)

Paddy Ashdown has his planned meeting with Gordon Brown at which he is
offered the post of Northern Ireland Secretary. He tells Brown that as
an old soldier he always follows the orders of his commanding officer.
He adds that even if Ming Campbell had thought it a good idea, he did
not. (BBC)


MPs said the atmosphere had calmed since a meeting of the parliamentary
party on Wednesday night, at which Sir Menzies promised he would not do
deals behind their backs. But one warned: "There is still a lot of
unease among colleagues. They are worried about how this episode plays
in the country, both with the party and with voters." (Independent)

Thursday, 21 June

The Independent reports Lib Dem reaction (in a story which, annoyingly, is no longer available online):

“Senior Liberal Democrats, including some of the party’s young high
fliers, reacted with horror and fury to the news, which dominated two
meetings of MPs yesterday..They protested that a clique of “elderly
Scots” – including Sir Menzies and one of his closest aides, Lord
Kirkwood of Kirkhope – had got too close to Mr Brown and the Scottish
Labour establishment. One said: “This report has the distinct ring of
truth. Amongst all the smoke there is definitely fire.” Another warned:
“We are steaming about it.” (Independent via

BBC reveals that Lord Ashdown had turned down the cabinet post of Northern Ireland Secretary:

Lord Ashdown revealed he had been offered the job on
Wednesday in a statement to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "It is true
that Mr Brown suggested… that I might take a position in the Cabinet.

"I told him that I could not conceivably consider such a
position unless my leader told me that he thought it was a good idea
and even if he did, I didn’t." (BBC)







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