Ahead of the reshuffle, I posted four criteria against which the Liberal Democrat part of the shuffling should be judged. Now nearly all the details are in, how does it look?
Most importantly, have people been put in jobs they’ve got a decent chance of doing well? It’s hard enough being a minister in the smaller party in a coalition government without having lots of people thrown into policy areas they are completely new to.
On this score, the reshuffle does very well. In particular, David Laws at education, Jeremy Browne at the Home Office, Norman Lamb at health and Lynne Featherstone at international development all gives people policy areas they previously have been interested in and spend time on. David’s long-running passion for education is well known; both Norman and Jeremy were at various times the party’s spokesperson on their new patch in opposition; and Lynne has also both been international development spokesperson and taken a particular interest in the international aspects of her previous Home Office brief.
The limited swapping around of jobs with the Conservatives also makes good campaigning and electoral sense for the party – there’s far more votes to be won for the party in DEFRA (where one of the party’s many rural MPs, David Heath, takes up post) and DFID (where there is the chance to appeal to one of the party’s traditional sources of support) than in the Foreign Office, for example, especially as all the major foreign issues end up with Nick Clegg anyway.
Does being a minster who disappears into their department and doesn’t do much in the way of communicating or campaigning to promote the Liberal Democrats matter? Some ministers have been far better than others at this; will this be reflected in the changes?
The MPs who have done well out of the reshuffle are also good campaigners, and ones who have consistently remembered to promote the Liberal Democrat cause even when we’re in government. Jo Swinson is the most obvious, and is now clearly the party’s main rising star. Tom Brake too is in this category – he has been one of the party’s unsung heroes – and Don Foster (Andrew Stunell’s replacement) knows all about winning a tough seat in a high profile election.
Quite a few party members will have put Julian Huppert in the same category and hoped he too would enter government. I hope Julian doesn’t mind me thinking that, for the moment at least, he is best outside of government as the areas at which he excels span several areas and as being a minister would not fit with being on the Pre-legislative Scrutiny Committee for the Draft Communications Bill.
When it comes to the moves within government, Jeremy Browne had somewhat disappeared into the Foreign Office as a good minister but a very low profile advocate for the party’s cause with the public. The Home Office posting gives him a chance to remedy that.
Moving Norman Lamb to the Department of Health not only puts a health expert in post, it also puts in one of the hotspots an MP with an excellent record at winning over party members to support a controversial policy – as he did with the Post Office and Royal Mail in opposition, partly by changing some parts of it, partly by spending a lot of time listening and communicating and partly be persuading people of the virtues of it
One or two other low-profile ministers may be breathing a sigh of relief that it hasn’t counted against them so far. If there is to be another reshuffle before the 2015 general election, that is a luxury that party can ill afford.
David Laws is going to come back. Even though he’s a contributor to the Orange Book and I was a contributor to Reinventing the State, I think those sorts of distinctions are pretty small set against what we have in common compared to the other parties. Bringing him back is the right move as he’s one of our most talented MPs. It would be daft however to ignore how some party members will feel about Laws’s return. So how well balanced overall are the changes made?
With Laws back and Browne into a more prominent role, not to mention the friend-of-Liberator Nick Harvey sadly leaving government, you could get all excited about a shift. Look further, however, to changes such as the big leap up for Jo Swinson and incomers such as Tom Brake who are slap in the mainstream of the party and the overall picture is one of very little change in any direction.
Nick Clegg’s often talked about the need to improve the party’s diversity. His previous government appointments, mini-reshuffles and House of Lords appointments have show promising moves in that direction. Yet we are also on course to go through a whole Parliament with a 100% white and male Lib Dem Cabinet line-up. How much do the changes today match the previous rhetoric, even allowing for shortage of diversity amongst those he can choose from?
One woman in, one woman out, one woman sideways. Not much progress there save that it’s no longer a case of ‘women do the equalities and children stuff’. Progress of a minimal sort.
[UPDATE: I'm led to believe by a senior source, aka I've had a text message from a reader, that I've jumped the gun a bit on this and there will be more movement when we see the final details. Hard to see where that will be in ministerial terms; perhaps we'll see something on the PPS and Whips fronts?]
[UPDATE 2: Jenny Randerson is becoming a new Liberal Democrat minister, boosting the number of female ministers by one and also boosting the number of peers in the government by one, very handy given how stretched those peers in government have been covering all the issues in the Lords.]
Overall then? A pretty good shuffling of the Liberal Democrat deck. And none of it that important compared to what happens to the economy.