Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 17 May 2010

How will Nick Clegg handle reshuffles?

It is an exciting time in politics at the moment with the coalition and Lib Dems in government positions for the first time in decades. There are lots of Lib Dem MPs pleased to have been made ministers. Indeed I saw some of them at the special conference yesterday.

Amidst all the excitement though it is worth considering how the cabinet and ministerial situation for the Lib Dems is likely to work during the course of the parliament. I am particularly thinking of how reshuffles will work.

Let's start with the cabinet because I think that is where Clegg will have his biggest problems. I am going to assume that the Lib Dems will always have 5 slots available. It is possible that the exact cabinet positions may change but I think the total will remain static. So in say 2 years time when the government is looking to refresh things and move people around, as well as promote talent, what will Clegg be faced with? I can't imagine him demoting Vince Cable. He has been such a star in the last few years and is so beloved by the party that it would be a huge wrench for him to be pushed out of the cabinet. So what about Chris Huhne? Well Clegg only beat Huhne by a very slender 511 votes in 2007 to win the leadership. In fact at the time there were problems with postal votes not arriving in time and a suspicion that if they had have been counted the result may have been different. That's how close it was. To Huhne's credit he accepted the result without kicking up a fuss about this but would Clegg really want to take a cabinet position away from a man who has so much support within the party? Then we move on to David Laws. Laws has been deeply impressive recently. His work during the negotiations was widely praised as exemplary and he has now taken on the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the helm of the difficult decisions about spending cuts. Will Clegg really want to reward him for his hard work and courage by kicking him out of the cabinet? That leaves Danny Alexander. Danny is probably the least well known of the 5 Lib Dem cabinet ministers. But he is Clegg's right hand man and one of his closest confidantes. It would be a very difficult decision personally for Clegg to remove him from the cabinet.

There will be similar problems for the other 15 or so Lib Dem ministers. However Clegg will have a bit more scope here as the numbers are higher and hence he will have more room for manouver.

The fundamental problem with the cabinet positions is that there are only 5 of them within his gift. In fact there are only 4 if you exclude Clegg's own position which I presume will not be up for grabs. When leaders have previously made reshuffle decisions they have had 20-odd cabinet positions to dish out. There is usually plenty of scope there for moving people around, in and out. Clegg is faced with a granularity problem. In most governments there are typically a hardcore of rock solid cabinet ministers who retain positions at that level for many years despite reshuffles. The current setup allows Clegg to do this but at the expense of promotion for anyone else from the Lib Dems to cabinet at all.

I guess in the end it will come down to performance. If any of the Lib Dem cabinet ministers are seen to have performed badly then their positions could be under threat. The big problem for Clegg will come if they all do pretty well. It will then seem churlish to demote any of them but there will be numerous high quality junior Lib Dem ministers looking for promotion too.

The last few days have seen numerous Lib Dem MPs with big smiles, happy to have been given unexpected ministerial positions. This is the easy bit for Clegg though. The difficulties will come later.


Daragh McDowell said...

If the experience in Ireland is anything to go by, the junior coalition partners generally keep their departments through the government unless they volunteer to move. The reshuffles are generally done among the senior partner's ranks.

Anonymous said...

It'll sort the wheat from the chaff, that's for sure.

The Druid said...

I think youve nailed it. If a week is a long time in politics, then two years is an eternity. But you are right, there isnt much room for meritocracy to work in the LD's current situation.

As an aside, I expect Laws to be one of the real stars of the current government. I think by the next election he will be seen as our prized asset.

Matt Wardman said...

His biggest issue may be running out of suitable Backbench MPs.

The LDs do have slightly more mavericks, and there isn't the new influx who are a pipeline for the second half of the 5 years.

Uncle Bob said...

Reshuffles are going to be problematic for Clegg. He will have input but Cameron as Prime Minister has the final say.

I don't think Huhne will give him too much trouble as he wouldn't risk his cabinet post but I think he might have a future problem with Cable. For the last 3 years he has been the face of the libdems in the media, dispensing his economic wisdom in simple soundbites, which journalists love and the public can easily pick up on. The trouble is he will be instinctively opposed against much of what Osborne and Laws will do and will inevitably try to park his tanks on the Treasury lawn which will be his downfall. Cable's biggest failing is his vanity and he had an easy ride from the press for quite some time with them ignoring his inconsistencies until he got skewered by Andrew Neil.

I wouldn't at all be surprised to see him leave (or be asked to leave) the cabinet in a huff. In this circumstance I can't see Clegg promoting another Libdem to the cabinet, he'd probably end up taking Cable's brief on himself. Which would probably be better for cabinet cohesion in the long run.