On the Nick Clegg leadership debate and David Laws’ return to government

by Stephen Tall on September 7, 2012

The rumblings about Nick Clegg’s leadership of the Lib Dems — today my LibDemVoice colleague Paul Walter has written to make clear his own dyspeptic unhappiness, citing three triggers in the past week which have led him to conclude Nick should go: the rehabilitation of David Laws to government, the promotion of Jeremy Hunt to the health department, and the bringing in of Lord Ashcroft.

Personally I think my other LDV colleague Nick Thornsby has the better of the debate:

On Ashcroft and Hunt, I’d say this. These were Conservative decisions. The involvement of the Lib Dems was indirect in the sense that they were only possible because of our being part of the coalition, but they were nevertheless decisions taken by a Conservative prime minister that didn’t need the explicit approval of Nick Clegg. On both decisions I agree they were wrong and they were stupid. But I don’t blame Nick Clegg. They were David Cameron’s wrong and stupid decisions and it is up to him to defend them.

It seems to me that to take your argument to its logical conclusion would be to end up in a situation where each coalition party has a veto over the other’s appointments (to both the government and privy council). That’s a legitimate line to take but I think it’s one you need to explicitly argue, because you must also defend the consequences which would probably flow from it. If the Tories had a veto over Lib Dem appointments, would Vince Cable be business secretary? Would Ed Davey be energy and climate change secretary? I doubt it.

As for David Laws’ return, I’ve been very happy to defend him this week from the smug sanctimony of those who like nothing better than to label him — wrongly — an expenses cheat. Those who trot out the usual ‘anyone else would’ve ended up in jail’ line are wrong. His intention was not to defraud, as even the harsh and partisan Parliamentary inquiry that investigated David’s claims accepted. His breach of the rules meant he was underpaid expenses he could have legitimately claimed. He wanted only to stop the press from prying into the relationship he was keeping hidden even from his family. Those who call David Laws a crook simply expose their own hideous lack of empathy. As I wrote here last year:

… this was a man who went to extraordinary, and wrong-headed, lengths to protect his privacy. And in doing so, incidentally, saved taxpayers tens of thousands of pounds.

I’m glad he’s been restored to government where he will, I’m sure, make a major contribution.