Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Are the Lib Dems in the wrong jobs in Government?

The current storm over the Government's proposals for the NHS is not surprising, but gives weight to the argument that the Lib Dems have ended up in the wrong ministries. How much influence can the Lib Dem cabinet members have when they are stuck dealing with decidedly un-sexy subjects?

If you ask people what they care about most, it tends to be things like hospitals, schools and jobs - not constitutional reform or even human rights. To that extent, I would argue that Nick Clegg should have argued for a Lib Dem to be given the top job in one of these 'service' departments. Perhaps it might even have avoided the current furore over the health service.

So where did we go wrong? There are five Lib Dem members of the Cabinet. It was important from the start that we had 'our man' in the Treasury and Danny Alexander fills the role of Chief Secretary. There has been a vital Lib Dem win in this department with almost a million people having been taken out of the tax system already, but the tax man is never going to make a huge number of friends - particularly when it is the Tory Chancellor who can try to claim the credit.

Nick Clegg himself is Deputy Prime Minister, but his ministerial role focusses on constitutional reform. This is a key issue for Liberal Democrats and getting the AV referendum was a key win. But it is not something that interests the general public. Even human rights and ending Labour's attacks on civil liberties are not the most pressing subject for most people.

In Vince Cable we have a Business Secretary who has done much good. but he was saddled with the whole student fees debacle from the start and has yet to really emerge from under the rubble.

Chris Huhne, as Energy Secretary, deals with another area of key interest to Lib Dems, but wind farms and electric cars are not the bread and butter issues of most peoples' lives.

And in Michael Moore the Lib Dems have a minister who is powerless to influence the key services because responsibility has, quite rightly, been devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

There are, of course, a whole raft of Lib Dem ministers below Cabinet rank. But even though Sarah Teather, Norman Baker, Andrew Stunell et al might be doing a fabulous (and Liberal) job, it is their Tory bosses who dominate the airwaves when there is any good news to be announced. And Health Minister Paul Burstow failed to prevent the NHS changes as originally proposed even though he was there at the heart of the decision making process.

None of this means that Lib Dem ministers are bad at their jobs or are failing to achieve real things based on the party manifesto. But what has happened is that, by being in the wrong top jobs, Lib Dems are not speaking about the subjects most of interest to the British people and we are therefore not being seen to speak for Britain.

I recall that when Sinn Fein first entered the government of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the unionists scrambled to keep them out of jobs involving cross border institutions. As a result, Martin McGuiness was in charge of education and his colleagues took over the other key spending departments. A similar thing has happened in Westminster as the Lib Dems have taken over the ministries they most wanted rather than those of most interest to the public.

As Shirley Williams once said about a Lib Dem-centric issue - 'I agree with you passionately, but it is 97th on my list of priorities'. Perhaps it is time that Nick Clegg realised this and, if the summer re-shuffle is to become a reality, takes the chance to insist that Lib Dems take on more important roles.


Graham Pointer said...

When Scotland had its Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition, reshuffles between elections would involve one person leaving a job and someone from the same party taking it on. It was only in the aftermath of the 2003 election and the new government being formed that portfolios changed party.

Keith and Kerry said...

Mike Moore will be going nowhere, for the simple reason that if this was to switch party it would either mean going to a Peer or to Scotland Office Minister David Mundell, who is only there because he's the only Tory MP in Scotland.