Thursday, May 19, 2005

Putting together a flatpack cabinet

Since I occasionally get readers of the Lib Dem persuasion, I’ll venture to comment on the reshuffle – but just the once. And unlike Sandra Gidley, I have no ‘collective responsibility’ to adhere to!

Overall it seems to signify a shift to the right of the party. That is if you accept the fine gradations of difference which exist within a Parliamentary party as small as the Lib Dems. Keeping Vince Cable at Treasury and Mark Oaten at Home Affairs while promoting David Laws to Work and Pensions and Ed Davey to Education are all pointers of the rightward shift. Elsewhere Menzies Campbell keeps Foreign Affairs – obvious really, can you imagine anyone else doing it?

But most of these appointments are established figures; there’s relatively little new blood. With the exception of Sarah Teather, it’s very much the same faces making up the Shadow Cabinet. Although I know at least two of the new intake, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, are being prepared for the fast track. During the last Parliament Chris was given the responsibility of leading the working group on public service delivery (which may need rethinking now since it relied on regional government – and that’s taken a body blow after the referendum defeat for a North East Assembly last year) while Nick was often seen in leading circles.

Meanwhile I wait to see what my contemporaries, elected the other week, will get (see post below). No doubt wiser heads than I will be cautioning them to focus on establishing themselves in their constituencies before dealing with the peripheral (to Lib Dem) activities of political posturing in Parliament.

Then there’s the lower-order appointments in the Shadow Cabinet which intrigue me and obscure those who don’t have a direct interest. In particular I’m pleased to see that they have squared the circle at DEFRA. Organising Lib Dem responsibility there seemed a bit ad hoc over the last few years; when I went to work there after the last election I think it owed to the party’s need for a rural affairs researcher, especially in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

But the Government had decided to merge its rural affairs department with that for the environment. The result was a headache for the Lib Dems, with out first shadow cabinet member, Malcolm Bruce, dividing the work between me and a colleague, who covered the environment. But the team – despite being middle-ranking – was larger than most others in the party and a separation of responsibilities occurred after Malcolm’s reshuffle a year later. Then we had a dyarchy of Andrew George (rural affairs) and Norman Baker (environment) running separate operations under one roof. Now the party has seen fit to bring it under Norman, which seems sensible, putting the other half of the duo at International Development – which will no doubt assist him in his tanning opportunities.

I’m also pleased to see Simon Hughes given a brief which is more than just London. Will he be able to stand in for Kennedy when Blair isn’t around and his place is taken by John Prescott? There’s also Don Foster kept at what I feel is too underrated a post: Culture, Media and Sport. But he enjoys the job and has done as much as he can with it. Unfortunately it’s not high profile enough to get much media attention, even though it does important work.

That’s my take. But does it really matter who gets what? Taking my parents (both apolitical) as a weathervane, my sense is that for the majority of voters the Lib Dems are Charles Kennedy – and maybe Ming when asked to talk about Iraq, etc. That doesn’t mean the appointments aren’t important for the MPs themselves; shadow cabinet status improves their chances of future leadership challenges. But as long as the party tries to be all things to all men – as it has done at the last two elections – it will cease to make much inroad.

Finally, if the individuals associated with the senior posts are really intending to push the party rightwards, I remain unconvinced that strategy will work. I’ve outlined why in an article I wrote for Liberator last week – I just hope they use it otherwise I’ll have to post it here!


Tom Barney said...

>if the individuals associated with the senior posts are really intending to push the party rightwards, I remain unconvinced that strategy will work

Please can you clarify whether you mean that pushing the party rightwards will not bring electoral advance or that the attempt to push the party rightwards will itself fail?

Guy said...

Thanks Tom for asking me to be clearer. I think the rightward shift won't work on both grounds.

First, the Tories are at 33% and have been for the last two elections. That to me suggests the Tories are down to their core support who will never change their vote. Besides, I'm not sure a media-identified 'left of centre' party could persuade suspicious Tory voters to vote for it.

Second, I can't see the party standing for it. As long as conference retains policy making powers then the leadership will find itself constrained by the activists, many of whom identify themselves as left of centre. Although I should point out there is another, more economically liberal wing within the party, my sense is that it's now as large or as deep. Furthermore, the two co-exist uneasily and with an unspoken pact that the party won't make a sudden lurch in either direction.

I hope that helps.