Opinion: January Reshuffle – Big Surprises and the Liberal ‘Big Beasts’ (Part I)

Part One – Two Big Surprises

It’s thought that Gordon Brown will have a January reshuffle in anticipation of a 2009 election. We could have a long debate about whether or not there will be an election in 2009 but, regardless, a potential election will be at the forefront of Brown’s (and Mandelson’s) mind when appointing the next batch of Ministers.

A lot has been written about a potential return to the Conservative Shadow Cabinet for one of their dwindling number of ‘big beasts’, Ken Clarke. But nothing has been written about any of the Liberal Democrats’ ‘Big Beasts’, probably because there is a false perception that we don’t have any.

I’m not going to be part of the inevitable whirl of speculation about who Brown will choose but I have a few suggestions for how the Liberal Democrats can make the most of this opportunity to bring back some of our own ‘big beasts’ to the front bench; as well as offering up some surprises for the media (something that can often be difficult with such a small pool of MPs to choose from).

Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown, as two former party leaders, are understandably two of the Lib Dems most recognizable faces, and also two of our most able communicators and politicians. Nick has already shown with Vince Cable that he is able to let others take the limelight and, whilst there are pitfalls in bringing two former leaders back to the front bench, I would argue the potential rewards are much greater.

As a party we sometimes find it difficult to be taken seriously by the media. We have been very much a ‘one man band’ in the last two elections and that is likely to be simply replaced by the two-man band of Nick and Vince at the next election. I would argue that what we really need is 5 or 6 faces in our shadow cabinet that are likeable, preferably recognisable and command respect with the public.

Whilst it’s difficult to make an argument that we will form a government after the next election, we do need to appear ready to do so. With the growing potential of a hung parliament we need the talent at the ready to make people feel their vote isn’t just a protest but is a vote that can create some real change and result in real action.

At the same time, following the appointment of Peter Mandelson as Secretary of State for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) both parties now have the problem that they can’t hold him to account in the Commons. In the past this position hasn’t been high profile in the Lib Dems anyway because our policy is to abolish BERR. However, appointing Paddy Ashdown to shadow Mandelson would do several things:

1) Bring back one of our biggest beasts to the national stage;
2) Allow us to better hold Mandelson to account in the Lords;
3) Put a more experienced face up against the apparent saviour of the Labour party – Mandelson won’t so easily slap Paddy down as he did George Osborne.

There is a caveat to this. I would also say that Paddy’s role should also include public sector reform. He has done some important work in this area, and whilst it sounds dry I personally hope it will develop as an important pillar of the Lib Dems’ narrative at the next election. This is because it allows us to quite neatly lump the other two parties together as parties who refuse to make the tough decisions to deliver public services for the 21st century. It also opens up the opportunity to attack Labour’s failures in education and the NHS because of their profligate spending on unreformed services, without having to promise substantial tax increases in a recession.

Apart from BERR the Foreign Office is a prime target for exposing the excesses of the civil service and it’s over privileged ‘old boys network’. And PFI, whilst having been expensive and ineffective for the tax-payer, is the gift that keeps on giving politically, as it has created a hundreds of expensive mediocre buildings paid through undeclared debt that will be a noose around our collective necks in the coming recession.

Now to Charles Kennedy. What Gordon Brown was missing when he first took power was a John Prescott figure; the political attack dog that can rally the party’s base and energise its activists. He has now found an unlikely person to take up that mantle in Mandelson and is reaping the benefits. In turn, Cameron has Eric Pickles who is able to fire up the right whilst Cameron is free to ignore him.

Nick doesn’t have anyone like that and Charles is perfect for the role. Giving him the Innovation, Universities and Skills brief would suit Charles skills as a communicator perfectly. Between now and the next election he could travel the UK’s universities, growing our student activist base and helping us to fireproof the seats we won in student areas under his leadership. He would also be the best person to communicate any changes to our tuition fees policy – something that has often been floated and then dropped.

* Letterman is a regular commenter on LDV. He is a politically-restricted party member (hence the pseudonym). Part II – Beyond the Big Beasts – will appear tomorrow on LDV.

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10 Comments

  • “It’s thought that Gordon Brown will have a January reshuffle”

    By whom?

  • Liam Pennington 31st Dec '08 - 1:49pm

    Phil Space, by the sounds of it 🙂

  • There’s always a danger in bringing back “big beasts” in that it can look like the party doesn’t have a big talent base to pull from – that would almost certainly be the press take on any changes within our party. That said, there’s certainly a lot for bringing Charles back and something which Nick has said in the past he’s keen to do, but there remain two questions – has CK really put all his demons to bed, and would the members of the shadow cabinet who spun against him accept him back?

    I’d like to see Paddy involved again, but maybe more in a “roving hitter” role than one particular department. Nick has mentioned getting out and meeting people as one of his goals for 2009 – Paddy did this when writing “Beyond Westminster” and maybe could help here? I suspect the BERR issue will be resolved by the Commons allowing Mandelson to take questions in the chamber eventually.

    One other suggestion – what about Malcolm Bruce? He gained a lot of credit as Treasury spokesman under Paddy, and has done a lot on select committees more recently on foreign affairs.

  • “suspect the BERR issue will be resolved by the Commons allowing Mandelson to take questions in the chamber eventually.”

    Possibly but this is a huge constitutional step

  • I do not think we should necessarily bring back a ‘big beast’ to match a government appointment. The time may now be ripe for the party to raise the issue of constitutional reform under the blanket of ‘Changing the Way Britain is Governed’ – including removing the power of the Prime Minister to call an election at a time of his own choosing, fixed term parliaments. further Lords reform,party political funding, P.R. Labour and the Tories would be against this. A big beast and communicater such as Charles Kennedy would raise the profile of such a policy and make it much more of an issue when an election is finally called.

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