The changes made by Cameron amongst his Tory colleagues are, in themselves, of little immediate public import but they tell us something about the issues facing David Cameron while Nick Clegg's role is ominous for the future of the Lib Dems. I want to examine the first and then, as a Lib Dem peer, comment on ther second.
The Prime Minister’s hand has been forced by a number of pressing issues. First, and most compelling, was the need to shift Jeremy Hunt out of Culture, Media & Sport before the Leveson Report is published later this month. Whatever its conclusions, it reawakens the crisis surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s News International enterprises. These include Hunt’s inability to control his senior aide’s inappropriately close relationships with employees of BSkyB, which was applying to extend Murdoch’s near-monopoly of UK television news. Hunt, at the time, as the Minister responsible, was about to make a quasi-judicial decision on Murdoch’s application. Previously, shortly before being given that task, he had declared his support for the bid. Whether Leveson deals with this or not, the subject is bound to be raised in the media and Parliament.
Equally, if not more worrying for the Tories, is that coming on top of Leveson, and continuing the saga for much longer, will be the trials of former NI senior employees over charges that cover ‘phone hacking, perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice. Cameron himself has already been severely tarnished by these accusations. His former communications director at No 10, Andy Coulson, is one of the many being prosecuted along with Rebekah Brooks, the Prime Minister’s neighbour, close friend and riding companion. It was imperative, therefore to get Hunt out of the firing line as soon as possible so that the usual ploy could be invoked: "We’ve drawn a line over this, we’re moving on, and there’s now a new Secretary of State dealing with media policy who will seriously consider Lord Leveson’s recommendations”. Transferring Hunt to Health, has the added advantage of involving him in a good deal of controversial decisions that will attract much publicity; but at least he might escape the backwash of Leveson by deflecting attention to the problems he will encounter in his new post.
Thirdly, Cameron had to seek to ameliorate his right-wing. Ninety-one Tory MPs had defied him and voted against a timetable motion that would have facilitated the Lords Reform Bill. The dander is up and they will continue to make further demands to restore their reputation as “the nasty party.” Trying to minimise these, he has attempted to appease them by a noticeable shift to the Right among his new ministerial dispositions. This is less of an ideological shift - “the real Cameron revealing his true colours”, as some news reports say - but rather a pragmatic, short-term survival tactic.
This last motive chimes in well with Nick Clegg’s natural instincts. The strategy of the Lib Dem leader is essentially to survive for as long as possible. That is why he has re-called David Laws into his ministerial coterie, being prepared to accept the price of rehabilitating a former Chief Secretary who lasted only seventeen days before resigning over a parliamentary expenses scandal. Whatever public opprobrium this may incur, Clegg now feels he at least has an ally as close to him as Osborne is to Cameron and one who can advise and guide on tactics and addressing the importunities of circumstance and thus hope to survive for a bit longer.
Laws might also help in restraining the influence and challenge of Vince Cable. This would also suit Cameron and Osborne. The Business Secretary’s popularity is growing amongst both Lib Dem activists and the electorate at large who – as successive poll findings show – would prefer to see him lead the Lib Dems into the next general election.
From a Lib Dem viewpoint, there is little more to be gained as a party by staying in Coalition and there would be considerable advantages top leaving. The main reason for joining the Tories in government was to deal with the dire problems of the economy. The policy followed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer thus far is palpably failing to do that. Double dip recession has not been avoided; forecasts predict no growth in the foreseeable future; and still banking has not been reformed. The boos Osborne suffered from the crowd at the Paralympics will only grow louder. My party and its eladers should avoid being included in the derision.
By withdrawing from the Coalition, the Lib Dems could claim they will still prevent the worst excesses of the Tory Right-wing policies by offering a minority Cameron administration support on an agreed ‘Supply and Confidence’ basis. It would help distance them from the Conservatives and give them time to prepare new policies with which to contest the next election. Not the least consideration, it would provide Short and Cranborne money in the Commons and Lords respectively. This is state funding that goes to opposition parties to help pay for policy research that can hold the government to account.
Clegg should have read the runes and seen the need to break with Coalition government (his office was advised of the likelihood of the curent turn of events on 4th June). Had he proposed such a course of action, he would have secured his position as Leader. He’s now squandered that opportunity. But the Lib Dem party has not yet lost its chance to take its distance from avalanche that the boos of the Olympic Stadium prefigure. It is, however, running out of time.