ResHUFFle: What Does Cameron Do About The Lib Dems In Cabinet?

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VINCE CABLE DANNY ALEXANDER JO SWINSON
The Lib Dems Have Five Ministers In The Coalition Cabinet, Making Reshuffles More Complicated | PA/Getty

One of the strange things about reshuffles in a coaliton is that the PM doesn't really get to decide for himself which Lib Dems serve in his government. It's entirely down to Nick Clegg to choose the Lib Dems he wants as ministers, and if you go back to the two year-old coalition agreement you'll find fairly prominently:

No Liberal Democrat Minister or Whip may be removed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister without full consultation with the Deputy Prime Minister.

Although it doesn't matter quite so much as the Budget, it's easy to imagine that having to consult with Lib Dems means the discussions will leak just like half the coalition's economic policies did, but we'll have to see about that.

I am told by people who should know that the Cabinet posts occupied by Lib Dems aren't going to change, nor is the number of Lib Dems in government as whole up for renegotiation. It sort of suggests that the Lib Dems will remain pretty static at Cabinet level. For Lib Dems this is a mixed blessing because it means some Cabinet members like Danny Alexander and Vince Cable appear safer, but it prevents Lib Dems from getting their hands on the big toys, like control of the Health or Education departments, for example.

I suppose Jo Swinson could be brought in to replace Michael Moore at the Scotland Office, although that would be for her an incredibly meteoric rise. The talk is that she'd be a younger and more charismatic opponent of Scottish Independence for the Lib Dems, which could help when it's thought younger Scots tend to be more in favour of leaving the UK.

It seems like any big Lib Dem movements will happen at junior level, where there's no suggestion the Lib Dems have to be welded to their existing departments. The people might change, and where the Lib Dems serve could also be up for re-negotiation as well.

david laws

The mood music of a limited reshuffle at Cabinet level means it's hard to find a home for David Laws, unless you get rid of either Vince Cable or Danny Alexander. It's always been hard to see how you'd move Laws into a department unless you were having a proper clear-out and really moving things around.

It would be strange to sack Ed Davey at Climate Change only six months after he got the job from Chris Huhne, and it's not clear whether it'd be something Laws wanted to do. It feels as though the only way to get Laws back into Cabinet is to sack Cable, and the problems the current Business Secretary would cause outside of government would probably outweigh the benefits from having Laws back in government.

Equally odd would be moving Laws back to the Treasury, replacing Danny Alexander, who took on the job when Laws had to resign in the first place two years ago.

The question is whether Laws would accept a more junior ministerial job instead. Maybe at DWP as pensions minister, with Steve Webb asked to make way or moved elsewhere?

Other permutations for Clegg include a sense that there's a few other good Lib Dem backbenchers who should be given a turn in government. There is a view that the more Lib Dems that have or have had ministerial experience, the less likely the party is to cause difficulties. Not everyone agrees with that and some think sacking people for the sake of it is daft.

Along with Jo Swinson her husband Duncan Hames might find himself brought in as a junior minister, as might Jenny Willott. It would make a lot of sense for Clegg to elevate Stephen Williams to government, although again it's not easy to bring Lib Dems in without throwing out perfectly good ones. Williams would be a good fit at Education, but then you'd have to find a new home for Sarah Teather, for example, who is by all accounts highly rated by Michael Gove.

Everyone says Cameron is hesitant to reshuffle because he wanted to give people a chance to get their feet under their table at departments and make a difference. But arguably the difficulties in managing Lib Dems mean the grief and added stress they bring to a reshuffle has quite a bit to do with it, no?