Today’s Lib Dem reshuffle: 4 thoughts from me on what it means

by Stephen Tall on October 7, 2013

Four quick thoughts from me on what today’s Lib Dem reshuffle means..

1. Nick feels secure enough to be ruthless.

Sacking both Michael Moore and Jeremy Browne is not something Nick would have been able to contemplate a year ago. Then – with the economy still mired in recession, his apology video still fresh in the memory, and Vince reminding everyone he stood ready, willing and able should the need arise – Nick was vulnerable, in need of allies. Now – with the economy recovering, Eastleigh defended and all key conference votes won – Nick feels able to asset himself.

2. This was about the people, not factions.

Michael Moore has every reason to feel disappointed: he has arguably been the most successful Lib Dem in the whole government judged by his achievements. Yet Nick feels he’s not the dynamic  face for the party in a crucial year when Scottish politics will take centre stage. A shrewd legislator but not enough of a showman  seems to be the verdict. We’ll see. Certainly Alistair Carmichael has big shoes to fill.

Jeremy Browne’s sacking is perhaps even more surprising – not because he’s looked comfortable at the Home Office (not even his most ardent admirers claim that), but because he  above all other Lib Dem MPs including Nick himself, is seen as the Orange Booker’s Orange Booker, and therefore regarded as very much a Cleggite. The Clegg view of Browne’s performance is revealing: “He was given the chance to put a liberal imprint on the Home Office. Ask yourself if he took that opportunity,” I was told.

This reshuffle was all about performance, current and future, not which wing of the party an MP’s from.

3. Norman Baker: the clearest sign yet of LibDem differentiation.

When the ‘Go home’ vans row broke out, Nick Clegg was on holiday. In his absence the party response was sluggish. That explains a lot, I think, about Norman’s appointment. It’s not that Nick expects Norman to get more of an inside track on the Home Office than Jeremy did, and be able to prevent Theresa May’s authoritarian knee-jerk — but he can rely on him to project a liberal message when the leader’s away. Jeremy’s appointment was all about trying to get a liberal influence within the department. It’s hard to see Norman’s as anything but a calculated move to seriously annoy the Home Office, and put clear yellow water between us and the Tories.

4. One unelected woman: is that the best we can do?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Susan Kramer, and I think she’ll be a great asset at Transport. But it’s a shame we’ve lost the last opportunity to appoint a female cabinet minister with the chance to make a difference. (Perhaps there will be a mini-reshuffle next year, post-referendum, but by then there will be just months til the 2015 election.) It wasn’t probably the ideal time for the obvious candidate, Jo Swinson, who’s fighting an ultra-marginal seat and about to go on maternity leave. And with Sarah Teather ruled out, that leaves just 5 female Lib Dem MPs. Among them, only Lynne Featherstone has the ministerial experience but no obvious vacancy for her to fill. But it is shaming that, after our first stint in power in peace-time in a century, we still will not be able to say that a female Lib Dem has say at the cabinet table.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.