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Lib Dem bird cage

This morning’s papers carry the news that the Liberal Democrats have finalised their pre-election line up.

Whilst this “reshuffle” is by no means a comprehensive reorganisation, it nonetheless provides some clues as to Lib Dem intentions going into the general election. It is therefore interesting that Clegg appears to have gently sidelined his party’s left wing.

This is most obvious with the widely covered demotion of Vince Cable, who will now be notionally restricted to the business brief with Danny Alexander taking the lead on the economy. Whilst Cable’s allies insist he’ll still be making economic interventions (which he probably will, official sanction or no), plenty of Lib Dem sources are telling the papers that he and much of the grass roots will not be happy that so prominent a left-winger has not been put front and centre for the campaign.

Yet Cable isn’t the only one affected by this rightward recalibration. Tim Farron, another leftist widely viewed (not least by himself) as Clegg’s probable successor as leader, has been put in charge of the foreign affairs portfolio.

Whilst this is notionally a promotion – the Independent describes it as the “high profile foreign affairs brief” – foreign policy is very rarely a decisive or even prominent election issue. Barring some foreign crisis, which as we described in our newslinks this morning the Government is keen to avoid, Farron will probably not have many distinctive Lib Dem foreign policy positions to articulate.

Again, this brief is not an iron cage – there’s nothing preventing Farron from making interventions in domestic issues. But with the spotlight on him as a leadership contender he risks unhelpful speculation of splits and challenges if he pays too little regard to his portfolio.

Against this, figures viewed as on the party right now command some of what will almost certainly be the critical policy battle lines of 2015. Alexander leads on the economy, as previously mentioned. David Laws, co-editor of the Orange Book once viewed as a potential Conservative defector, now holds the education brief.

Perhaps more significantly, tucked away near the bottom of the party announcement is the news that Norman Lamb is the party’s spokesman for health. This is certain to be a central political issue in the five months between now and polling day – just look at today’s front pages – so we can expect to hear a lot more from him.

Lamb was lauded by Lib Dem members at their conference for his work towards mental health reform, which produced one of that conference’s signature messages. This grassroots affection, combined with the heightened profile of a prominent election role, leads some to mention him as a “dark horse” candidate to challenge for the leadership from the party right once Clegg steps down.

What does this mean for the election? It does not mean that the Tories are going to get an easy ride – Laws launched a scathing attack on Cameron in today’s Telegraph simply for refusing to rule out education cuts. Whatever their own sympathies and comprehension of fiscal realities, it’s an election and all these men will be out for blood.

Nonetheless, these appointments do suggest a team more likely to find dividing lines with Labour than the Conservatives on the big issues of the campaign, and seem designed to boost the status of individuals who might be more kindly disposed to a second term of partnership with the Tories than to stepping out with Ed Miliband.

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