Simon Hughes has been in Parliament for 30 years or so, has played the part of Liberal Democrat older statesman under the Coalition, and clearly fancies having a red box before it ends. Who can blame him? – and bully for the Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP that he has the chance. My friends in the media will be unable to resist poking fun at Hughes and Chris Grayling, an odd couple at the Ministry of Justice, just as Theresa May and Norman Baker are a very odd couple indeed at the Home Office.
Min you, the Justice Secretary won’t necessarily mind his new Minister sounding off to the left of him: after all, it will allow the right-of-Tory-centre Gtrayling the opportunity to do a bit of differentiation of his own. Furthermore, Hughes’s responsibilities don’t include prisons and law reform, the most politically contentious parts of the department’s programme, in which the Justice Secretary himself is taking the lead. And with the election now less than 18 months away, much of that plan is already settled.
Problems for Grayling may come if Hughes turns out to be a regular dissenter from the departmental line, and this makes the Secretary of State look not different but weak. But the hard questions about this move are not for the Justice Secretary, but Downing Street. Lord Faulkes has been appointed as a justice spokesman in the Lords, and this appointment is clearly meant to balance out Hughes’s. However, I doubt whether the ambitious Conservative MPs straining for preferment in the Commons will see it that way.
Their view will be that, yet again, a space is found in the Ministerial ranks for a Commons Liberal Democrat, but not for a Tory. On the whole, David Cameron’s last reshuffle wasn’t bad for the Centre-Left of the Party (think Kris Hopkins, think Jane Ellison), and it was distinctly good for Friends of George (think Amber Rudd, Claire Perry, Matthew Hancock). The move will give parts of the Right another reason to gripe: not great timing for the Prime Minister, with an arduous year coming up.