My Total Politics column: The Lib Dem reshuffle was male, pale and stale – and likely to remain so

by Stephen Tall on October 13, 2013

It’s easy to see why party leaders don’t like reshuffles. What seems like the moment of ultimate power, when you hold in the palm of your hand the destinies of your colleagues, more often triggers a chain reaction of unintended consequences. When Nick Clegg elbowed aside Scottish secretary Michael Moore, whose self-effacing, sweet reason out-smarted Alex Salmond in the Edinburgh Agreement negotiations, it was because he reckoned his replacement, the genially feisty Alistair Carmichael, would be a better match for the SNP leader in next year’s independence campaign.

It wasn’t just Mr Moore’s feathers which were ruffled by his ruthless despatch; so too were those of Sir Menzies Campbell, who looked on the now ex-Scottish secretary as his protégé. It’s probably not a coincidence that Sir Ming, whose formidable wife Elspeth had given strong hints he’d re-stand for a sixth term in Fife North East in 2015, decided that same week to announce his retirement. His 9,048 majority may look healthy on paper, but it means the Scottish party’s meagre resources will now have to be stretched even thinner to defend a seat which would otherwise have been thought rock solid.

Another incident is perhaps more revealing of how the best laid schemes ‘gang aft agley’. Last year, Nick Harvey was briskly dismissed as armed forces minister by the Deputy Prime Minister, who guiltily gave him a knighthood to make up for it. This year, Sir Nick Harvey was offered re-entry into government with the post of Lib Dem chief whip, vacant thanks to Alistair Carmichael’s elevation. But, instead of being grateful, Sir Nick turned plain old Mr Clegg down. The Lib Dem leader was forced instead to promote old-hand Don Foster (who famously vanquished Chris Patten in Bath in 1992 to the sound of cheers from jubilant Lib Dems and right-wing Tories alike). It’s hard to square this same-old-names merry-go-round with Mr Clegg’s declared aim of “provid[ing] the opportunity for as many in our ranks as possible to contribute their skills to Ministerial office”.

That choice quote is from his exchange of letters with another of the evictees, home office minister Jeremy Browne. Regarded as a Coalition loyalist and the party’s Über-Orange Booker, his was the surprise exit of the reshuffle. I asked one Cleggite why he’d been booted out: “He was given the chance to put a liberal imprint on the Home Office. Ask yourself if he took that opportunity,” came the pointed reply. Well, quite. The issue which has caused Mr Clegg most grief in the past year has been civil liberties. Whether it was the ‘snooper’s charter’, the extension of ‘secret courts’, the “go home” illegal immigrant vans, or the arrest of David Miranda, the perception has taken root in the party that Lib Dem ministers have too often caved-in to Theresa May’s authoritarian demands.

In a recent survey of party members by LibDemVoice, Mr Browne recorded the worst net popularity rating (-18%) of any Lib Dem minister since the Coalition was formed. Mr Clegg’s verdict seems scarcely to have been any warmer. His decision to substitute the thrusting Mr Browne with the rough-hewn Norman Baker was calculated, and a little bit brilliant. It has, of course, upset ultra-Blairite pundits like John Rentoul and David Aaronovitch who regard as dotty Mr Baker’s investigations into the death of Dr David Kelly. But it means the Lib Dems now have in the Home Office a minister who is a libertarian by instinct, licensed by his leader to speak out the next time Mrs May or her officials decide to make a unilateral grab for increased security powers. In case you were wondering, Mr Baker’s net popularity rating among Lib Dem members was +37%. If he does the job as Nick Clegg hopes he will, it’ll soon be higher.

Have you noticed what all the names mentioned above have in common? Yes, they’re all men. (They’re also all white and, let’s be kind, at least middle-aged.) Nick Clegg promoted only one woman to become a minister, Susan Kramer at Transport, and she was drafted in from the House of Lords. It’s shaming that the party which proudly proclaims its belief in equality has never yet appointed a female cabinet minister. Perhaps this omission will be rectified should Jo Swinson, about to go on maternity leave, be made Scottish secretary if (when?) next year’s referendum delivers a ‘No’. But by then there will be just a few months of the parliament left, and it would be little more than a face-saving exercise.

The key problem is the lack of women Lib Dem MPs: just seven out of the 57 elected in 2010. Worryingly, only two of these – Jenny Willott and Lynne Featherstone – have anything like healthy majorities, and even they will face tough battles defending their 2005 gains from Labour. It’s true, women have been selected to defend two of the party’s strongholds (Hazell Grove and Berwick), as well as in two top targets narrowly lost to the Tories at the last election (Montgomeryshire and Oxford West and Abingdon). But we’ve been here before. At the last election, the Lib Dems selected almost as many women (25) in their top 100 seats as did Labour (27), but were a lot less successful in getting them elected. And who thinks 2015 is going to be any easier for the party? The sad reality is that Nick Clegg’s future reshuffles, whether in government or out, are likely to be just as male, pale and stale as this one.