What do we Lib Dems want from a reshuffle?

by Stephen Tall on August 20, 2012

While the massed ranks of the mostly right-wing political commentariat obsess about the imminent Cabinet reshuffle, Lib Dem interest has been relatively muted.

In one sense this isn’t surprising.

As it stands, 18 of the party’s 57 MPs are on the government payroll, so Nick Clegg has little room for manouevre even among the middle ranks of government. And with only five cabinet positions (four if you exclude Nick himself as Deputy Prime Minister) there’s even less wiggle-room at the top table. Nonetheless, this reshuffle will most likely be the only one that actually matters for the Coalition: this is the one and only chance to re-cast the government in a way that could actually have a long-term policy impact.

The biggest question, the one from which all other personnel changes follow, is whether the founding structure of the Coalition is right: spreading Lib Dem ministers across pretty much all government departments to present the picture of an integrated government of Conservatives and Lib Dems. This seemed the natural and right way of doing things back in the sunny Rose Garden days of blossoming unity. It looks increasingly forced and abnormal now the Coalition is approaching a gloomier autumnal phase.

There have been successes in this form of government. For example, Lynne Featherstone has tenaciously battled for the equalities agenda within the Home Office in a way Theresa May would never have allowed a Tory minister in her department to do. Nick Harvey has been able to thwart Tory efforts to make a faith-based commitment to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent rather than one based on evidence. Steve Webb has struck up a surprisingly effective partnership with Iain Duncan Smith notwithstanding Lib Dem discomfort at the extent of the Coalition’s welfare cuts.

But these (limited) successes cannot cover up the fact that Lib Dem ministers’ successes depend either on their own devil-may-care gutsiness (Lynne), or on forging an effective working relationship with their Conservative cabinet minister (Steve). I’ve heard from many sources of Lib Dems being in effect shut out of the decision-making in their department. Though Nick Clegg rightly insisted on seeing all papers that pass the eyes of David Cameron, the equivalent licence was not given to our ministers. Too often, they are instructed to face the cameras to announce bad news, and kept hidden out-of-sight for the good news. It is hard to see this modus operandi shifting the closer we get to a 2015 general election.

It’s time to have separate Lib Dem / Tory government departments

Is there an alternative? Yes. It’s the one practised by the Labour/Lib Dem coalition government in Scotland for two terms (1999-2007), and recently hailed by The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson as a shining example of ‘mature coalition’:

That worked because of the way that the late Donald Dewar divided his Cabinet: Lib Dems were given responsibility for portfolios (justice, agriculture) and prided themselves on how competently they handled those portfolios. Ross Finnie and Jim Wallace (farms and justice respectively) acquitted themselves very well, and the Lib Dem share of the vote went up in the 2003 Holyrood election as the electoral admired it. Both were swept away by the SNP surge in 2007 but for eight years it was an example of how coalition can work in Britain. And work to the benefit of the smaller party.

Now I think Fraser overstates how important was the structure compared to, say, the greater shared ‘progressive consensus’ that existed between the two coalition parties in Scotland. But I think he is right to highlight the risk of the next three years of Coalition Government becoming more of a battle within government, with Tories and Lib Dems in each department calculating how best they can spike the other’s guns and leak that they have done so to the media. Not only will that be bad for government, it will also damn for a long time the very concept of coalition in the public’s eyes.

The Lib Dems have two hugely tricky tasks to perform in the second half of the Coalition. The first is to try and restore Lib Dem electoral fortunes. The second is to try and ensure the public sees coalition as a viable and functioning form of government. At the moment those two aims are pulling in different directions. The party is straining at the leash to differentiate itself from the Tories’ increasingly right-wing direction; and finding the only way to demonstrate that is to block Cameron & Co in government. That kind of half-way Coalition satisfies no-one: neither those who want to see outright opposition, nor those who want to try and make the Lib/Con alliance work.

I’m increasingly of the view that the only way to align our incentives in a lasting way is to focus Lib Dem resources in key departments, rather than spread ourselves so thinly. There are exceptions: I think it’s crucial we retain a foot-hold in the Treasury with the post of chief secretary. Whether Danny Alexander is the right person for the job is another matter: while I think too many Lib Dems are quick to malign someone in a role where unpopularity is guaranteed, I just don’t think he’s the person you want fronting for the party on Newsnight. I also think we must avoid carrying the can for Andrew Lansley’s failures at the department of health.

But there are areas of government — most obviously: education, justice, transport, communities and local government, and environment — where I think Lib Dems should be pushing for greater responsibility… even if that means ceding foot-holds in other departments to the Tories. That won’t always be comfortable. In education, for instance, it would mean sticking with the Coalition Agreement’s commitment to free schools, something that’s contrary to official party policy, even while it allows us to ‘own’ Lib Dem policies like the pupil premium.

What it would deliver, though, is clear accountability, enabling the public to judge Lib Dems (and Tories) on their ability to deliver the policies agreed within the Coalition Agreement in government. And it would give all ministers a real incentive to make sure their departments are seen to deliver effective government.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.