Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Norman Lamb on his time as a minister... and Danny Alexander

Norman Lamb has been interviewed by the Institute for Government for its Ministers Reflect series.

You can see a short clip from it above and read the full transcript on the IfG website. (The interview took place in March 2020.)

As the Liberal Democrats could find themselves part of a coalition government after the next election, it's important that we learn from our unhappy experience between 2010 and 2015. So this interview makes useful reading.

But it may not make happy reading for Danny Alexander, who does not come out of it well.

Here, for instance, is Norman Lamb talking about his role as Nick Clegg's parliamentary private secretary, which he took on after the offer of a ministerial role was clumsily withdrawn:

I found it to be a fairly hollow role. I was involved in central discussions and I became part of the core team around Nick, but I was also conscious that the power lay with Nick and Danny - Nick primarily went to Danny and not anyone else - which caused, I think, some frustration amongst many people. A lot of people felt that Danny wasn't necessarily the best influence on Nick, and I still feel that strongly.

And when asked by the interviewer to expand on this point, Lamb says:

I think that Danny was hopeless on the health reforms, he passed it all and didn’t really understand the issues, in my view. In my view, the great sadness was David Laws falling early as the chief secretary .... The caricature of David was as right wing, as a sort of Tory in disguise, but actually, internally, he wasn’t. He was the one who was fighting against ending the indexing of benefits, he was fighting for a real terms increase in education spend and a real value to the pupil premium. 

His fall from the Treasury meant that we lost an intellectually coherent Liberal in the Treasury. We ended up with someone who was trying to convince Tories that he could be trusted doing this vital role of chief secretary to the Treasury. It was a case of overcompensating, which you quite often see.

That overcompensation was pretty much official Liberal Democrat strategy after 2010 - you can learn that from an article written by Nick Clegg's then political adviser, Richard Reeves, in 2012.

Reeves thought the Liberal Democrats had first to prove they were mature enough to be in government, but it is hard to imagine any other party burdening itself with this demand when it had just won a share of power through the ballot box.

A better model, Norman Lamb suggests, was that offered by Norman Baker as a transport minister. Lamb recalls that Philip Hammond (then the transport secretary) complaining to him that Baker was difficult to work with and did not comply with the protocols:

Norman, who I’ve got a lot of time for, was a press junkie who was just going off and actually doing what he ought to be doing, I think getting the message out there about what a Lib Dem minister was achieving. 

Lamb goes on to add:

The interesting thing was that the two of them ended up getting on quite well in transport and having a degree of mutual respect, I think because they were both assiduous - I think the dynamic ended up working quite well.

So next time we Liberal Democrats find ourselves in coalition, we need to have more confidence in ourselves and in the approach to the country's problems that we have just fought an election on.

And we need to make sure  we have someone at the treasury with the intellectual equipment and confidence to stand up for themselves.

In 2010 our front bench had as much expertise on economics, if not more, as those of the two larger parties. Think Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, David Laws and Steve Webb. We should have drawn on that pool of talent and used Danny Alexander's talents differently.

You can explore all the Ministers Reflect interviews on the Institute for Government website.


Phil Wainewright said...

This is exactly what I suspected. LibDems in government were obsessed in proving themselves worthy of the role. And yet the role models most of them sought to emulate were not LibDem but Tory and Lab, so they ended up looking just the same. We must avoid this trap if we ever get a second shot at coalition.

Frank Little said...

This bears out ones feeling that Danny Alexander had undue influence. The fact that as a PR person he spoke the same language as Cameron must have been a factor in consolidating the quadriga (including Osborne) at the top.

Laws was not the only expert in his field who was turfed out before the end of 2011.