by Stephen Tall on November 4, 2014
Norman Baker’s decision to quit as Lib Dem home office minister — citing significant differences with his boss at the department, the Tories’ Theresa May — means a vacancy has opened up. How will Nick Clegg fill it? We’re unlikely to have long to wait, but here are what I see as his options…
Nick could simply promote a current MP. If he does so, then the obvious choice would be Jenny Willott. She covered Jo Swinson’s maternity leave at the business department, earning good reviews along the way. A promotion would be well-merited and would mean a further Lib Dem woman in government; at least a nod in the right direction, given Nick Clegg’s failure to promote a woman to the cabinet.
On the downside, Jenny’s Labour-facing Cardiff Central constituency is vulnerable — her majority is just 4,576 — and she may prefer to spend the next six months nursing it, rather than bogged-down in a Whitehall ministry with little time left to drive her own agenda.
If Nick likes the idea of mischief-making, he could opt for a more radical choice. Perhaps Julian Huppert — a persistent liberal thorn in the side of the home office — might like a tilt? (Though his Cambridge seat is perhaps even more marginal than Jenny’s.) Or how about Tim Farron, shortly to stand down as party president, and guaranteed to put his liberal imprint on the post in the time remaining.
Other options include installing a soon-to-retire MP so that those fighting re-election are not tied-up (Ming Campbell QC?) or a Lib Dem peer (Brian Paddick has the on-the-job experience to face-down Tory taunts that Lib Dems are soft on crime).
Speaking to Lib Dems at conference there was some speculation of a wider reshuffle before Christmas to assist those who want to spend their time defending their seats to do so. Norman clearly gave Nick advance warning of his decision to quit, so there will have been time to plan this out. We’ll find out soon if Nick will take the opportunity.
This could mean the Lib Dems withdrawing altogether from the Home Office. After all, if such doughty liberals (and different personalities) as Lynne Featherstone, Jeremy Browne and Norman Baker have all failed to persuade Theresa May to be an inclusive cabinet minister, what’s to be gained by setting up another for a fall? Why not secure an additional Lib Dem minister in a department where the party can hope to make some progress? That would enable the Lib Dems to speak out on home office matters without being bound by collective responsibility.
* 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.