By Peter Hoskin
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I’m afraid I’m one of those people who think that reshuffles don’t matter much, especially when it comes to the grand swell of policy and of public opinion. But it is true that reshuffles can make a difference to the internal mood of a government, and that goes doubly so during a period of coalition. The divisions of labour in the Coalition were basically made up on the spot, hammered out during those early negotiations — and they have led to friction as certain personalities and ideologies have rubbed up against each other. A change could do something to restore peace and order.
But how great should the change be? There is an argument that David Cameron should implement something greater than a reshuffle, more a reshaping of the government. Indeed, back in December, Paul mooted handing departments such as Health over to the Lib Dems in return for departments such as Business. Last week, Fraser Nelson also suggested giving the Lib Dems entire departments to run, along the lines of the Labour and Lib Dem coalition in Scotland between 1997 and 2007.
From a Conservative perspective, this argument has much to commend it. As Fraser said, the Lib Dems would more easily be judged on what they can build for themselves — not on what Tory policies they can tear down. And Tory ministers would be given the run of departments elsewhere, perhaps including Business. Everyone might be happier, and so the Coalition could be more stable and actually achieve more. Of course, it’s not an entirely perfect plan — Tory MPs who specialise in Lib Dem areas would be shut out of government, for instance — but compromises never are.
Lib Dems I’ve spoken to about this have mixed views. Some regard it as self-harm; a way of ceding their party’s influence across government. Others regard it as an opportunity to show what the Lib Dems are about, by both working alongside the Conservatives but also in distinction to them. They would like departments that play up their party’s “caring” self-image: Education (where they might focus on the Cleggist priorities of social mobility and early years development), Energy and Health. Although I should add that they appear less certain about the last of these three, given the rockiness of the Lansley reforms.
I suspect the two party leaderships are more on the side of the sceptics, as neither naturally tends towards surrendering control. Besides, it would be very difficult to implement from an organisational perspective, and could throw up all sorts of inconsistencies. Nick Clegg, for instance, has amassed 14 special advisers on the basis that he needs people reporting back from what are currently mostly-Tory-run departments. Would he insist on keeping them were some of those departments entirely Tory-run? Would David Cameron insist on similar in the case of Lib Dem departments? And what of the Treasury, which would surely remain a two party operation?
In which case, any Lib Dem component to September’s reshuffle is likely to be much more limited. 22 of their 57 MPs are already on the payroll vote, which hardly gives Nick Clegg a wellspring of fresh talent to draw upon. And the subtle balances of his party mean that he can’t do anything so dramatic as aggravate Vince Cable, given what that might mean for his own position and thereby the strength of the Coalition.
My guess is that the most Coalition-friendly measure we might see is the return of David Laws, an ally of Mr Clegg’s as well as one of the strongest voices calling for unity between the two parties. That, and Mr Cameron might avoid putting less Coalition-friendly ministers of state under Lib Dem Cabinet ministers. Like I say, reshuffles tend not to matter much.