Nick Clegg today confirmed that Danny Alexander not Vince Cable will speak for the Lib Dems on Treasury issues during the election campaign as the party battles to avoid an electoral wipeout.
The move means Alexander, currently chief secretary to the Treasury, will take on George Osborne and Ed Balls in any televised debates on the economy during the campaign. But it has been condemned as an "insult" to voters' intelligence by some on the left of the party.
In 2010 the role was handled by Cable, who until the onset of Cleggmania was presented as almost a joint leader of the party by the Lib Dems.
A Lib Dem party source said Cable was "unhappy" with the switch which, while long trailed, will be viewed as a snub. And the business secretary is said to intend to continue to make interventions on the economy during the campaign despite Clegg's shake-up.
Alexander is a key ally of Clegg and is widely seen as the deputy prime minister's preferred choice to succeed him as leader. The job of Treasury spokesman in the campaign will give Alexander the chance to attack the Tories and distance himself from accusations that he is too close to Osborne.
The move is not wildly popular with the grassroots left of the party. Naomi Smith, the chair of the Social Liberal Forum, said Clegg had "given a gift to the Tories on the economy" by appointing Alexander.
She told The Huffington Post: "In a recent Lib Dem Voice survey, 70% of grassroots respondees said they didn't think Danny Alexander should be the Liberal Democrat's Shadow Chancellor. Of those, 65% preferred Vince Cable and 5% wanted 'someone else'. It's not difficult to understand why.
"Activists know how trusted and popular Vince Cable is on the economy. He prophetically predicted the 2007 crisis, perhaps unsurprising given his vast experience. On top of his academic accolades, he was Chief Economist at Shell before entering politics. Danny's economic credentials are more limited, his last job prior to entering politics was Press Officer for the Cairngorm National Park.
"Voters believe Vince when he speaks about the economy because he is authentic - he has consistently called for a deviation from Osbornomics and for greater capital spending. He understood the need to rebalance the economy, away from over dependence on the casino capitalism of the banking sector. Danny on the other hand, has been a Treasury champion, supporting his boss, George Osborne.
She added: "Voters aren't stupid - they won't believe that Danny has suddenly had an about-face on the economy. Liberal Democrat activists know that we mustn't insult voters' intelligence on this issue, and they know that Danny won't be as adept, or as credible, in taking on Osborne during debates. By choosing Danny over Vince, Nick Clegg has once again just given a gift to the Tories on the economy."
The 2010 Lib Dem battlebus even featured Cable's face
Confirming the change today, Clegg said his election team would "stand up for the liberal values of openness, tolerance and compassion in the face of those who peddle grievance, fear and blame".
As the Lib Dems do not have ministers in every department, Clegg has had to hand some election portfolios to MPs not in government.
Former party president and likely leadership candidate Tim Farron has been given the foreign affairs brief and Sir Nick Harvey, who was sacked as a defence minister by Clegg in 2012, comes back as defence spokesman.
In a further sign that Lib Dem MPs are positioning for life after Clegg, energy secretary Ed Davey publicly revealed he would like to take over the party.
In an interview with LBC radio last night Davey said it was not "unreasonable" to want to lead the party when Clegg "hangs up his clogs". He added: "If one day it falls to me to lead it, then obviously, I’d like to do that."