What would a Lib Dem reshuffle bring?

by Stephen Tall on May 30, 2007

In less than a month, there will be a new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who will re-cast the Cabinet to reflect his ambitions. The posts of chancellor and of home secretary will, we know, become simultaneously vacant.

It seems likely, too, that the current incumbents at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (Margaret Beckett) and the new Ministry of Justice (Lord Falconer) will be leaving the stage. We are, as yet, in the dark about whether John Prescott’s hole as outgoing deputy PM will be filled.

In sum, it’s a major overhaul of a serving government unparalleled in modern political times. This poses challenges to the opposition parties, and we know (which is to say, I’ve read it in the papers) that David Cameron is currently preparing to re-shuffle the Tory shadow cabinet in readiness for a Brown Government.

What of Ming Campbell and the Lib Dem shadow cabinet?*

To date, speculation about the Lib Dems has centred on the party leader himself. But, despite a few mutterings, there seems little prospect of a forced exit, least of all from the members of the parliamentary party whose jobs are, ultimately, on the line. Most appear content that the much-vaunted-but-little-seen behind-the-scenes organisational changes Ming has instituted will begin to bear fruit – if we can avoid another destructive bout of public panicking.

So will Ming re-shuffle his team?

Or will he choose to leave things be?

After all, the Lib Dems’ problem is the opposite to that of the Government. The key difficulty Mr Brown needs to surmount is that Labour looks so dreadfully tired (as well as appallingly incompetent, but let’s leave that to one side). For us the third party, our key spokespeople are still too-little-known. Where familiarity has bred contempt for Labour, we rely on it breeding contentment for the Lib Dems.

Nor does Ming have much scope to re-shuffle. Vince Cable might make way for fresh blood in the form of Chris Huhne (or David Laws). But Vince has made huge strides in establishing some semblance of credibility for the Lib Dems’ economic policies – no mean job when the party hasn’t been in power for 80 years. Last year, I suggested he could be given a strategic policy co-ordination role, which would have suited both his considerable talents, and his second job as deputy party leader. But, with Steve Webb heading up the writing of the next manifesto, that role is now taken. So Vince, I guess, will be staying put.

Nick Clegg is a prolific shadow home secretary who is regularly sought by the media, while Michael Moore is still trying to get noticed as shadow foreign secretary (a tricky task given the media always makes a beeline for Ming the moment Iran, Korea or the Middle East hit the headlines).

In the chief public service departments – Health, Education, Transport and Environment – the party has yet to score big against Labour or the Tories. (Though at least in Chris Huhne’s environment portfolio this cannot be ascribed to either lack of industry, or the absence of a comprehensive policy agenda.)

We can, of course, blame the media for their disinterest in public policy compared with their febrile who’s-hot-or-not personality obsession. But, truthfully, who among us could give a quick (and accurate) summary of how the Lib Dems would transform for the better our hospitals, schools or railways?

This is not to pin the blame on those shadow spokespeople in those four hot seats. It comes back to that over-used touchstone, ‘narrative’, hotly debated in the Lib Dem blogosphere of late: how do we explain to people, simply and clearly, how the Lib Dems will help them, and improve society.

‘Free, fair and green’ is a good start (and, come to that, a pretty good slogan). But how many of our policies – across the board – actually fulfil those criteria? And if I as an engaged party member am asking that question, is it any wonder that the wider public is uncertain?

I suspect any changes Ming might make to the Lib Dem shadow cabinet in the next few weeks will be marginal. And that’s fine by me – unlike the Tories, we are not a party which looks to the bloke at the top of the party to explain what our long-cherished principles are this week.

But a reshuffle is as good an opportunity as any to ask how far we are translating our liberal principles into liberal policies. And how good a job our shadow cabinet is doing at explaining either or both to the electorate.

* If you’re a Tory about to complain the Lib Dems have no ‘right’ to call their front bench a shadow cabinet, please spare yourself the hassle. The Tories are, de jure, HM The Queen’s Official Opposition. That does not give them exclusive rights to the term ‘shadow cabinet’. Get over it.