I was shocked to read on Lib Dem Voice that Nick Clegg has asked David Laws to lead the negotiations for the Lib Dems on party funding. I simply can’t imagine anyone worse placed to do so.
Leaving aside the obvious questions around the man’s honesty, his positioning and history are completely wrong for the job. Return him to cabinet in a reshuffle if you want. The Tories would be thrilled. They’ve always seen him as “one of them” even trying to recruit him as far back as 2000.
But Labour neither like nor trust him, and with good reason.
We don’t like him because of his lack of empathy. The fact of the sheer glee he took, when being the first Lib Dem front man to wield the knife. As he announced numbers that we knew meant job cuts, worsened and damaged life, he was grinning like a kiddie who’d found the keys to the sweet shop. Frankly, we found it unseemly. Earlier in the week the scandal over his expenses broke, he had busied himself fussing over the cost of pot plants in his department, despite evidence they improve productivity. His governmental persona was set. No wonder ConHome polls had him scoring higher than some Tories.
All of which wouldn’t matter one jot if he were being appointed to a cabinet post. The opposition don’t need to like government Ministers.
But when it comes to cross-party talks, a very different type of person is needed: one that all sides can sit down with and at the least trust. Laws fails this very basic test for two key reasons.
Firstly, he’s already been involved in a high-profile negotiation. We know every detail of his heavily slanted, deeply biased take on that. He published it. Why on Earth would Labour open up and have the kind of honest conversations that will be essential to a proper negotiation around these sensitive issues to someone who can be reasonable expected to be looking for his next book deal – looking for the juicy story, not the moment of compromise? Putting such a person around the negotiating table is the clearest sign that Clegg has no interest in these talks actually getting anywhere.
So what are they for?
Well here we come to the second reason Laws is an odd choice for a negotiator: he’s hardly seen as equidistant.
There are Lib Dems who wouldn’t be a good choice, because the Tories don’t like them enough. Charles Kennedy for example has made his discomfort with the coalition semi-public. That would make him just as much the wrong person as Laws, even though Labour like him far better. On the other hand, there are MPs like Tim Farron who has made a point of viciously attacking Labour and the Tories in equal measure. He’s a fierce Lib Dem triballist – which is ok. In his position as Party President, he might have been in an ideal position to lead the Libs in these negotiations.
So what is Nick Clegg playing at? Well politics mostly. No one is expecting a great deal from these negotiations. They aren’t expected to achieve anything but the most incremental of changes. They will kick the difficult issue of state funding into the long grass. The stalemate on union funding and large donors will remain.
But Clegg is supposed to be restarting his differentiation strategy again, it having spluttered slowly to life with a few easily forgotten speeches over the last couple of months. If his MPs start to actually show a bit more freedom of thought and action (especially on issues not covered in the Coalition Agreement) he’ll need some red meat to throw to his Tory buddies.
What better than a manufactured row with Labour over their closeness to the unions (something about which we are rightly proud)? Who better to create that fake row than David Laws – who managed it so successfully before?
So maybe I’m wrong. For the sneaky job Clegg may really want done, there may well be no one better for the job than Laws.