The Liberal Democrat Deputy Leadership contest looks over almost over before it’s started. My local MP, Simon Hughes already claims 25 supporters, and with 29 required to win. Tim Farron’s challenge, however exciting and different, looks rather more Henley than Brent East.
But the notable qualifications of both these individuals aside, there is a rather more fundamental question to ask about the job itself.
Part of the Coalition’s mission is to eliminate duplication and waste in government. The Liberal Democrat party could do the same to itself, and this role is a prime candidate.
In opposition the position had a clear remit. When Mrs. Clegg ordered Nick to go on holiday and leave the leaflets at home, Vince Cable would stand in at PMQs and chair meetings of the Parliamentary Party.
When that happens today the new Deputy Leader does not then become the Deputy Prime Minister. Government positions are not party positions.
Nor does the stand-in leader of a party in government have any special Parliamentary privilege. The DL can ask questions of the government. They do not have unique rights to do so though, any more than the Conservative chair of the 1922 committee. They are just another MP.
Inside the Party, ‘Lanson Boy’ highlights the confusion further, describing the role as “joint head (with the Party President) of the rubber chicken circuit”. Do we need a two-headed chicken?
If elected Simon Hughes has grand plans to clarify all this. In Parliament he wants to create roles for non-government Liberal Democrat MPs to shadow ministries with Conservative ministers. He wants the Speaker to grant them special rights to ask questions. He wants these spokespeople and ministers to meet weekly as a shadow cabinet. Internally his remark “we have to be really strong in our policy positions” suggests he sees some role for the DL leading on policy formation.
Personally I think he’s wrong on all counts. If Liberal Democrats outside the government wish to show their independent identities and think that will help the party, they can do so by being MPs and asking awkward questions.
Government never stopped Labour backbenchers from finding their voice and what Simon appears to be suggesting is that he and his shadow ministers act as a filter for ‘official party dissent’ as opposed to the regular unofficial kind any MP can pursue by speaking their mind. This is neither necessary nor very helpful. If team Simon and team Nick disagree who is speaking for the party? Or does it depend which one is on holiday?
The Speaker should refuse his special privileges request, Parliament has no business changing their arrangements to suit the communication preferences of party factions.
His ‘shadows and cabinet’ meeting idea makes little sense other than as a sounding board. As a group they have no remit. There are already full meetings of all the MPs to share ideas, and if backbenchers want a specific talking shop they should lower themselves to copy the Tories and set up a 2010 committee.
Within the party we don’t need two Presidents, or a special policy role for a deputy leader of the parliamentary party. There are already quite enough poorly defined over-lapping jobs on all the various internal committees without adding another layer of confusion.
Which leaves the new DL with the occasional job of chairing meetings of the MPs as holiday temp cover.
Do we really need a grand sounding official role for that job, or can be left to old-fashioned delegation?