Britain’s Liberal Democrats fired a shot across the bows of their Conservative coalition partners Wednesday, warning that they are ready to push back if this week’s government’s reshuffle of cabinet posts threatens to turn into pressure for a policy shift to the right.
Under particular pressure from right-wing elements of his increasingly fractious party, Conservative leader David Cameron this week used his first cabinet reorganization since becoming prime minister to make a series of new ministerial appointments that raise the likelihood of fresh coalition rows, and perhaps even an eventual split, over issues including the environment and crime.
"If we have got Conservative ministers who want to do more right-wing, reactionary things, it shows the Liberal Democrats are all the more important in stopping them," Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats' party president, told the BBC Wednesday.
Seeking to counter a mid-term plunge in the popularity of his administration, Mr. Cameron began the reshuffle Monday, branding it an exercise designed to ensure “delivery” of major policy commitments by bringing in new faces, such as the former chief executive of the London 2012 Olympic organizing committee, Paul Deighton.
The headline appointment was the transfer of the health portfolio to Jeremy Hunt, a minister previously embroiled in controversy over a bid by Rupert Murdoch’s media for full control of Britain’s largest pay-TV broadcaster. However, future fault lines with the Liberal Democrats were identified in the appointment of a much more hard-line new Tory justice secretary, Chris Grayling, and, as predicted, the departure of Tory Transport Minister Justine Greening, who had sided with the Liberal Democrats in resisting pressure to expand Heathrow Airport.
While few commentators seriously regard the changes as a threat to the coalition’s stability in the short- to medium-term, tensions under the surface were also illustrated by claims Wednesday by Tory backbench parliamentarian Rob Wilson that the reshuffle was "part of the process of the divorce with the Liberal Democrats."
Tim Bale of Queen Mary, University of London, an expert on conservative politics who has written about the Conservative party, says that he was “not convinced” that government policy would change significantly, pointing out that Cameron himself is at one with right-wingers on totemic issues like Europe. There was also little or no sign of a change in economic direction. [Editor's note: The original story misstated Mr. Bale's current affiliation.]
But Mr. Bale added: “I suspect strongly that if we begin to get new initiatives, particularly on law and order that are seen to be illiberal, or for example on the environment, then you could see tensions arise.”
“If things get better on the economy, if the Liberal Democrats’ poll ratings begin to rise, then they are not going to use those issues to destabilize the government. If, on the other hand, their poll ratings are still heading south and nothing is beginning to look better on the economy then they will begin to look for the differences and begin to exploit them as possibly a way of leaving the coalition with some dignity intact.”
Among the new Liberal Democrat ministerial appointments, a key move was the return of David Laws, who was forced to resign two years ago over an expenses controversy. Firmly on the free-market wing of the party, he is a close ally of leader Nick Clegg, recently the focus of rumblings of internal discontent from elements including those favoring a more Keynesian approach to the economy.
Mark Pack, who was the Liberal Democrats’ head of innovations until June 2009 and now co-edits a website for supporters and activists, agreed that there was a risk of coalition instability as a result of a Tory pivot to the right.
But he also pointed to factors pointing the other way: “For example, it makes it easier for the Liberal Democrats to differentiate themselves form the Tories.”
“I also think that David Cameron is clearly committed to making the coalition work, but he has to be able to lead his party to do that. So if the reshuffle ends up strengthening his control over his own party then that does make working with him a bit easier. In many ways, this reshuffle is about each party thinking about their own party.”