Almost every newspaper splashed that last week’s Government reshuffle was “a lurch to the Right”. It was, after all, a reshuffle that received the endorsement of Norman Tebbit. The promotion of Jeremy Hunt at Health, Owen Paterson at Environment and Grayling at Justice, together with Michael Fallon and Matt Hancock encircling of Vince Cable at BIS, is all solid evidence of this. But the appointment of David Laws, ostensibly at Education but with a “roving brief” across Whitehall, is just as telling in terms of the direction of Liberal Democrats in the Government.
In recent weeks, as the Lib Dem conference looms and in the face of more dire polls for his party, Nick Clegg has stepped up his “differentiation strategy”. His political re-entry after the summer holiday was, unsurprisingly, an interview in the Guardian, the newspaper that told us all to vote Lib Dem at the election. Clegg talked of the need to “hard-wire fairness” and that the rich should shoulder a greater burden. Only weeks after he sanctioned the tax cut for millionaires, we have come to expect this level of bare-faced dishonesty.
But like rats deserting a sinking ship, there is a lot of this progressive reinvention going on within the Lib Dems. Paul Burstow, the Lib Dem minister who led the Health and Social Care Bill through the Commons, rejecting amendment after amendment at Committee stage, stepped down from the Government and within hours he launched an attack on the “dangerous” plans to cut hospital services in London. Sarah Teather served at Education, backing Michael Gove on scrapping school buildings and child poverty targets. Like Burstow, she too has left the Government to go and spend more time with her fragile majority.
The good voters should be sceptical indeed of former Lib Dem ministers suddenly wishing to trade pay-cheques for principles. Some Lib Dems would like to give the impression that their support for the Government is moving towards “confidence and supply”. But Lib Dem support for the Government is on the same basis as it was before – convenience and supply.
The come-back for the disgraced David Laws shows Clegg’s true colours. This was Clegg’s number one priority. The so-called ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems, of which Laws is the poster boy, are ideologically at one with Cameron and Osborne’s failed economic doctrine. This is what they really believe – it is why they came into politics. Before the reshuffle, according to Philip Cowley, the only Lib Dem backbenchers never to have “rebelled” against the Government are Laws, Chris Huhne and Lorely Burt.
Earlier this year, Economic Affairs contained a number of articles discussing the effect the Orange Book had eight years ago. Laws described the centre ground, where many Liberal Democrats previously believed was their rightful place, as “the muddled middle of British politics”. His conclusion for the Lib Dems was:
“We must keep faith with economic liberalism. Free market capitalism…offers the best prospect for increasing wealth and reducing poverty and poor living conditions.”
And what of Osborne’s failed economic plan? In January of last year, Laws wrote in the Guardian:
“It seems highly likely that 2011 will be the year in which the coalition is proved right on economic policy.”
So if last week’s reshuffle did mark a further shift to the Right, amongst the Tories and the Lib Dems, what are we to make of it? To attack the Government because it has “lurched to the right” is pretty meaningless and abstract to most people. They are rightly interested in what it means for themselves, their families and the things they care about, like the fact that last week’s reshuffle means that the clear and present danger to the National Health Service is ongoing.
Last week’s reshuffle does mean that the Conservative party continues to re-toxify at a pace. David Cameron has long since given up on modernisation and on being the change that was promised. But we also have a Liberal Democrat party with MPs that are completely at home in this Tory-led Government. The Lib Dems are guilty of two things: duplicity (in promising one thing and doing the exact opposite) and complicity (in enabling the worst aspects of the Cameron and Osborne Government). All Lib Dem MPs must be held accountable for this. No Lib Dem MP that has served in this Government, or voted in the lobbies for this Government, has a free pass or a get-out-of-jail-free card at the next election.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and shadow minister without portfolio