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David Laws: The New Education Minister Hardly Anyone Wants Back

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DAVID LAWS
David Laws Is Back - But Few Lib Dems Are Delighted | PA

For some reason the return of David Laws is viewed as some kind of panacea, someone who'll save the coalition from both itself and the sense of drift that's become a hallmark of government so far in 2012. Yet surprisingly few MPs - Lib Dem or Tories - actually feel this way.

Last night the Parliamentary Lib Dem party gathered for a back-to-school supper. The sense among them as the reshuffle sank in was that they'd been corralled by the Tories, cattle-prodded around Whitehall at the whim of David Cameron. That's how reshuffles always feel, of course. But for a small party unused to government there was a sense of being manhandled and vulnerable, particularly given the ascendancy of the right on the Tory side of this reshuffle.

Still, they've got one of their big hitters back in government, right at the heart of the action in both the Education department and the Cabinet Office. That's got to be a consolation prize, right?

Far from it. Many Lib Dem MPs view Laws' supposed rehabilitation as only further cause for depression and panic. They think it makes things even worse.

And they're right. BSkyB takeovers and GP clinical commissioning groups seem myopic to large sections of the public - not because they're too thick to understand them, but because they don't exist on a tangible human scale. Theft, on the other hand, is easy to grasp because it's happened to most people at some point. People believe David Laws stole, and the prevailing sense is that he wasn't sufficiently punished for that.

Now he's back in government, and quite a few Lib Dems with precarious majorities (that's a lot of them) worry that Laws' inevitable profile in the media will hamper their electoral chances, not enhance them. Were any Lib Dem MPs glad to see David Laws back in government, I asked? "Just one, Nick Clegg," replied one MP.

It's not just that Laws is so far to the right of his party he's considered a Tory in all but name. When you factor in Chris Huhne's forthcoming trial for allegedly perverting the course of justice, some MPs feel the challenge facing Lib Dems to restore their happy-clappy brand just got an awful lot harder.

On the Tory side the return of Laws - and the reshuffle as a whole - was greeted with a collective shrug. They're happy that Chris Grayling's been promoted and glad that Patrick McLoughlin will be more visible. Many are baffled by the ascendancy of Theresa Villiers and the embracing of everyone's favourite GP Daniel Poulter.

Certainly some backbench Tories were bemused at the new make-up of the Education ministerial team, not just because Michael Gove has lost Sarah Teather, a Lib Dem who he actually liked working with, but also because he's now got Liz Truss to deal with.

"She'll give Gove hell," one Tory MP said, and it's certainly true that on the backbenches Liz Truss has badgered and hectored Gove. In our interview with the Norfolk MP earlier this year she acknowledged that she's been "bolshy" in her dealings with ministers. Many would like to be a fly on the wall inside the Education department now she's got control of early years intervention - she'll probably have toddlers doing quadratic equations within weeks.

The view is that Gove now has the ministerial team from hell to deal with, at a time when he's about to attempt root-and-branch reform to the GCSE system. Gove now has a powerful Lib Dem minister to challenge him in the form of David Laws and a truculent whippersnaper in the form of Liz Truss nipping at his heels. Welcome to the brave new world of Coaliton 2.0.

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