Sunday, September 9, 2012

Reshuffling Thoughts 2 - The Liberal Democrats

It was Sir Humphrey in the great Yes Minister who said ‘a party with just over 300 MPs forms a government and of these 300, 100 are too old and too silly to be ministers and 100 too young and too callow. Therefore there are about 100 MPs to fill 100 government posts. Effectively no choice at all’.

Indeed when you look amongst the 300-odd Conservative MPs, once you take out those who are constantly rebellious, politically immature, too old or just simply bonkers, there is not a lot left – so David Cameron’s task when putting the government together is not as difficult as it seems. No Lords or EU rebel got promoted so that’s a third of the parliamentary party for a start.

For the Liberal Democrats, however, the opposite is the case. Where you have fewer MPs (the ‘cream rises to the top’), coupled with a limited number of ministerial places, there is simply too much talent to go round. The Lib Dems are blessed to have so much quality on its benches but cursed in that it cannot be put to full use in the government’s service. So while it is pleasing to see David Laws, Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson enter the government, it is sad to see Sarah Teather, Nick Harvey and Paul Burstow depart.

One view of this is to share out the responsibility. When the election comes, half of the parliamentary party will have had ministerial experience which will stand well both for any future plans the party may be involved in (another coalition?), or, to take the worst case, their individual career development outside parliament.

But the crux of the matter is – David Cameron’s question was who to bring in, Nick Clegg’s was who can we afford to live without?

Of course, if the Lib Dems had 300 MPs then doubtless we would have as many donkeys as the other two parties. But, pound for pound, it is clear that the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party is the most talented grouping in parliament.

So what of the reshuffle? Firstly, there was some dismay in Lib Dem quarters at having no-one in either the Foreign Office or Defence. To be honest, this does not concern me too much. As I said last time, I think William Hague is doing an impressive job and Nick Clegg can speak for the party if required. As for defence, again Clegg could cover but the argument for an alternative to Trident can be continued outside the department.

Secondly, no change in the cabinet. The only other role Vince Cable could be considered for is Chancellor of the Exchequer which will not happen. Danny Alexander is doing a fine job, Michael Moore has not done anything wrong and Ed Davey is on the right lines. The addition of David Laws in a roving role will be interesting (although I am not sure what that means – will he be a consigliere like Ken Clarke?). David Laws is the only Liberal Democrat to get regular kind words from Conservative Home – although this could be a double-edged sword.

There were rumours that Lib Dems (possibly Laws) would be given the Health department – and administer the Tory NHS reforms – an idea whose flaws are rather obvious.

It is at the junior levels that we now look and we see that concentration is being made on areas we hold dear. In Education (Laws), Health (Lamb), Business (Swinson) and Agriculture (David Heath), we have a more prominent and strengthened role - both to push our own views and check the Conservative ideas. (To be fair, not all Tory ideas are bad - but there are some which need, shall we say, another view).

My main concern has been Lynne Featherstone’s move to international development, which will reinforce this amongst the government's priorities, but the loss of the equalities brief – a role in which she excelled – could be very harmful, and implies that Cameron may again be placating his backbenchers, especially on same sex marriage.

How do the Liberal Democrats now fit into the government as a whole? Overall, I would be optimistic. There is influence in most of the key areas of the government and I would hope to see greater Liberal Democrats prominence as a whole. In a recent survey by Lord Ashcroft, 51% wanted to see more Lib Dem influence on the government so let us hope this will go partly in that direction. (There are many on the Tory Right who argue that Lib Dems have too much influence – an argument not borne out by the facts).

I want to see our ministers, new and old, come forward with proposals. The main priority is growth and the economy. The only Conservative idea is to cut taxes for the rich and benefits for the poor, which history has shown does not work. Liberal Democrats can think broadly and have greater initiative – balancing the need for a growing economy with a liberal sense of justice and fairness. It is up to us to free the government from the shackles of the Tory Right and push forward our plans.

Now the reshuffle is over, let us hope that the desperate yearning for a coalition collapse, that we see every week in the media and on the Conservative backbenches, will subside and the new administration can be left to get on with it. There is after all no shortage of work to do.

FOOTNOTE: However, as I prepare this entry, an interview has arisen with Michael Fallon, newly appointed business minister, in which he makes clear his views that we should salute ‘wealth creators’ (Tory-speak for ‘the rich’), and make it easier to sack people (the most famous and ridiculous part of the Beecroft report). One has to question the wisdom of the two leaders in allowing such potential tensions in a department as important as business.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reshuffling Thoughts 1 - The Conservatives

‘A move to the right’ seems to be the overwhelming view amongst the media of this week’s government reshuffle, alongside its weekly speculation of the collapse of the coalition. Personally I think this is a bit simplistic – but the reshuffle has proved to be more interesting than I thought it might be.

Firstly, we must note what David Cameron could not do. Obviously he could not sack George Osborne. There is little doubt that Osborne has to date been a considerable failure in the post, but to abandon him now would be admitting the failure of Plan A. There is also the crucial role of taking the flak. John Major found that, after sacking his Chancellor Norman Lamont, he had lost a shield and all the subsequent criticism came directly his way. With Osborne in post, George can act as an air raid shelter for the Prime Minister. (My preference for Chancellor would be for the radical solution of giving Vince Cable the post – he is easily the best qualified candidate – but I accept that won’t happen).

No problem with William Hague in the Foreign Office – he seems born for the role – but Teresa May has been a disaster in the Home Office. From ‘cat-gate’ to borders to immigration, the blunders just go on and on. One could argue that Home Secretary is the most difficult government job, but Ms May seems completely incompetent in the role. Cynics observe she is only there because of her gender – I don’t think this is the case. However it is getting harder to believe that David Cameron genuinely thinks she is the best person for the job.

So despite two of them deserving to go, David Cameron could not move the big beasts. What about the medium sized beasts?

Reading through the changes I got the impression that Cameron felt the need (but not the desire) to placate his backbenches. As we have seen again and again, many Conservative MPs lack the maturity and the discipline to play a responsible role in backing their own leadership. They pick and choose which bits of the coalition agreement to support, and expect everyone else to keep to the agreements. (It is interesting to note that reportedly several Conservative MPs turned down a job in the whip’s office in order to be free to attack their own government!) So this is where the ‘move to the right’ comes in.

Arguably the most interesting move is Chris Grayling taking over Justice. The move of my fellow High Wycombe Royal Grammar School Old Boy to replace Ken Clarke is a clear change of direction. While some Lib Dems were unhappy with this move, I await developments with interest. I think Grayling will find it frustrating that he can talk tough but actually, due to the limitations of coalition, his position, and human rights, he can actually do very little. In the meantime, from now on, everyone we can’t deport, he will have to share the fault with Ms May.

Grayling has been in the London news lately for a scheme whereby youth unemployed will do unpaid work in return for their benefits – and this has got quite a negative response. I wonder if Cameron has ‘over-promoted’ him, both to keep him away from trouble, but also to neutralise a possible future leadership rival.

And what about Ken Clarke? Having him as a Minister without Portfolio sounds like he will be some sort of ‘consigliere’. I think Cameron appreciates the advice of his most experienced Minister but again is placating to his backbenches by removing any responsibility – a shocking and disrespectful way to treat someone of his stature.

Another stand out move is that of Jeremy Hunt to Health. Not long ago, he was on the edge of resignation, so to then get promoted is quite an achievement. One wonders if one motive of this is to start moves at making up with Murdoch with the next election in mind. How will Mr Hunt do with Health? After all the upheavals of the NHS restructuring, it may be a quiet department where he can settle down and be off the front pages for a while.

And the third Heathrow runway is back via Justine Greening’s move (and of course Boris bursting onto the scene – because it has been all of twenty minutes since he was last in the headlines). If the government were now to back the third runway it would be the biggest of all U-turns, but my guess is that the way is now open for a review to be carried out which will not report until after 2015 – a review that would not have happened without a favourable Transport Secretary.

Those are some early thoughts on the Conservative side of the reshuffle. Next, some thoughts on the Liberal Democrat reshuffle, how we can fit into all this, and how we can move forwards through the second half of this parliament.