by Stephen Tall on November 12, 2007
Five weeks’ today, the Liberal Democrats will be announcing who is to be the next leader of the party: Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne. One of the first jobs for whoever is the victor is to decide who should be in their shadow cabinet – never an easy task.
First, you have to reward those who’ve backed your campaign. Then you have to bend over backwards to be nice to the runner-up against whom you’ve been sparring for two months. And then you have to prove your unifying credentials by giving some key posts to those MPs who didn’t back you. There is the added complication this time that there are two ex-leaders in the current Parliamentary party, as well as the current acting leader, all of whom merit inclusion at the top table.
So what will Chris/Nick do?
What place should the runner-up take?
An easier call, perhaps, for Chris than for Nick. If Chris wins, then he could hardly be accused of snubbing Nick if he asked him to continue to shadow the home affairs brief: it is, after all, one of the most prominent positions available. However, if Nick wins, where would he place Chris?
The environment job is clearly a crucial one for the party, but Chris might feel (a) ready for a change, (b) like he deserves one of the traditional ‘big three’ portfolios, and (c) Nick’s veiled criticisms of his marketing of the party’s ‘green tax switch’ make it impossible for him to continue in that role.
Chris’s background as a financial journalist, and then as founder of his own successful firm of economists, would ordinarily make him a shoo-in for shadow chancellor. But would it make sense to move Vince Cable, who has earned the party real credibility in treasury matters? And who has also performed the tricky task of acting leader with such distinction. If Vince were to make way for Chris, how could the party make best use of Vince’s financial acuity?
What to do with our ex-leaders?
Both contenders have made clear their keenness to see Charles Kennedy return to a leading role in Parliament: now is surely as good a time as any so long as Charles is both able and willing. The two obvious potential slots are shadow foreign secretary or a ‘Europe and constitutional issues’ brief; the latter would probably provide the best fit both with a return to the front-line, and also with Charles’s own long-standing passions.
Ming may feel he should take a back seat, to give the new leader the time and space to get his feet under the table; he might perhaps head up a party review (Nick has already asked him to look at conditions in the military). Alternatively, if he signalled his wish to stay in the shadow cabinet, he might like to return to shadowing either foreign affairs or defence, in both of which roles he has seemed at his most authoritative and comfortable. More left-field opportunities might arise if Gordon Brown feels inclined to offer his friend a consolation prize; either to head up a government review, or – just maybe – the possibility of succeeding Michael Martin as Commons speaker (hinted at in the media, but which is not of course in Gordon’s gift).
And then there’s Vince, widely lauded for his lively stint as acting leader. Should he remain shadow Chancellor? If Chris wins, it seems likely; if Nick wins, and wants to reward Chris, who knows? One alternative might be to give Vince the job Steve Webb has been occupying, and put him in charge of writing the party’s next election manifesto. This kind of over-arching policy coordination role would be a great match for Vince’s talents.
The other question, of course, is whether Vince wishes to remain the party’s deputy leader. There has long been a wish among many members for the party to have a balanced leadership ticket, and for one of our female MPs to step up to the plate – which didn’t happen last time the post was up for grabs, back in March 2006. That said, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Vince taking on with such aplomb the role of acting leader, and making such a good fist of it. So perhaps we should hope he stays put.
Who deserves a bigger role?
Over to you for this one… Our current shadow cabinet is listed here. Who do you think deserves promotion? Who has previously been over-looked, and deserves their chance to shine? And who do you think is the best match for which jobs? In short, let LDV know your fantasy Lib Dem shadow cabinet.