Third Lib Dem frontbench departure forces mini-reshuffle

Nick Clegg at the World Economic Forum

Nick Clegg was forced to appoint an extra minister from the House of Lords and to ask another minister from the House of Commons to take on two jobs in a mini-reshuffle as Liberal Democrat MPs spurned frontbench jobs to concentrate on the looming general election fight.

Three Lib Dem MPs have resigned frontbench posts in the last month as they gear up for the election next May. In the most high-profile departure, Norman Baker announced he was quitting the Home Office after a “constant battle” with Theresa May to try to introduce policies in the face of a Tory “lurch to the right” in pursuit of Ukip voters.

Baker, who likened his experience working under the home secretary to “walking through mud”, was replaced by Lynne Featherstone, who returns to the Home Office after two years as a junior minister at the Department for International Development.

In a sign that Lib Dem MPs are reluctant to take up ministerial posts on the eve of the general election, Featherstone was replaced in international development by Lady Northover, a government whip in the Lords. Northover in turn is replaced by Lady Garden, who will be unpaid.

Tom Brake, the deputy leader of the Commons, was asked to double up as a whip after Clegg appointed just one full-time replacement for two whips who resigned to concentrate on their marginal seats. Jenny Willott, who had been tipped for promotion, informed Clegg recently that she wanted to resign so she could raise her profile before a tough fight in her marginal Cardiff Central constituency. By convention, whips do not speak in the Commons.

Mark Hunter announced recently that he was resigning to concentrate on the fight in his marginal constituency of Cheadle. Lorely Burt, the MP for the highly marginal seat of Solihull, which she holds with a majority of 175, is the only full-time new entrant to the whips’ office.

David Cameron and George Osborne mocked Baker’s resignation on Tuesday. Speaking during a visit to Rochester and Strood, where there will be a byelection this month, the prime minister said: “We’ll cope without him.”

Osborne dismissed Baker as a conspiracy theorist in light of his book which questioned the official account of the suicide of the government scientist Dr David Kelly. The chancellor joked at Treasury questions in the Commons that his shadow, Ed Balls, should apply for Baker’s old job, saying: “There’s now a vacancy for a conspiracy theorist at the Home Office.”

In a sign that the Lib Dems do not want the resignation of Baker to signal the collapse of the coalition, his successor said she was looking forward to working once again with the home secretary. Featherstone, who is promoted to the post of minister of state for crime prevention, said: “I am very happy to be returning to the Home Office.

“I am very proud of what I was able to achieve in my previous role there, not least introducing equal marriage, ending the fingerprinting of children and banning wheel-clamping on private land. I am also looking forward to continuing my work tackling violence against women and girls, and on ending FGM at home and abroad. I have always had a very constructive relationship with Theresa May and I look forward to working with her again.”

Baker, who announced his resignation in an interview with the Independent, expanded on his attack on May on Tuesday morning as he accused her of failing to allow him to develop policies.

He told the BBC News channel: “The home secretary was reluctant to let me have my head and it was a constant battle to try to get things through. That is unfortunate not just for the Home Office but actually for the government.”

The former minister dismissed criticism from Damian Green, who was sacked as a Home Office minister in the Tory summer reshuffle, that he had acted as a “Lib Dem home secretary” on a par with May. Baker said: “We are in a coalition government and therefore it was right that I took an interest in matters right across the department, which is no different to how I behaved in the Department for Transport.”

He said his battle had been complicated by the Tories’ “lurch to the right” in response to the Ukip threat. “I have done it for a year, it is very hard work, the Home Office is probably at the cutting edge of the coalition,” he said. “It is where most policy issues are difficult, whether it is Europe or immigration. It has not been helped by the lurch to the right from the Conservative party as they chase Ukip off to the fringes.”

Baker said there was no point in hanging on to office. “We don’t always have to cling to office as ministers. If we think there is a time to go, there is a time to go. I want a break. I want to spend more time with my family, more time in my constituency, more time doing stuff I want to do, like my music.”

The Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, accused the home secretary of insulting the electorate by acting as if the Conservatives had won an overall majority at the last election in her high-handed treatment of Baker.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There is a sense within the Home Office – and it is sensed around the rest of government, both sides of the coalition – Theresa May behaves as though the Conservatives won the last election. And they didn’t. It is important that we should respect the will of the electorate.”

Farron suggested that May’s behaviour was not repeated in most other departments. “Norman worked very hard to make that coalition within the Home Office work. The fact [is] that things across other departments of government are working stably – we have many disagreements – but you still work in a collegiate fashion.

“And the indications that have come – and is the case across all sides of government – is that Theresa May runs the Home Office as though she had a right to have a majority. They didn’t win the last election and it is an insult to the electorate to act as though they did.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent, for The Guardian on Tuesday 4th November 2014 19.24 Europe/London

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