Over the summer, I worked in Norman Baker’s parliamentary and ministerial offices. I wasn’t anything that important, just an intern, but I saw and heard a great deal. One thing I learnt while I was there was that Norman was one of our most effective members of the Government. He was into Transport in a way that I think I never will be and he knew his subject to the letter, possibly because he was the longest serving Transport minister. His instincts are liberal through and through and to this day I think he has a level of honesty and trustworthiness that is very rare, even among Lib Dem MPs.
Another thing that I picked up on was that the Home Office was something of a problem for the Lib Dems. Theresa May had gone a little Apocalypse Now and was spouting the most illiberal rhetoric on immigration, on crime, on civil liberties. Jeremy Browne was fantastic in the Foreign Office and has definitely left something of a legacy with them, though, rightly or wrongly, his tenure in the Home Office has been regarded as something of a disappointment. The story varies depending on who you speak to, some will describe him as not liberal enough, others just say that he didn’t stand up to Theresa May enough. I’ve no doubt that if the Liberal Democrats were to win an overall majority in the next General Election, Jeremy would find himself with a well-deserved cabinet position and he would probably be fantastic at it. But in a post where we need a strong-willed, liberal-blooded minister to tell Theresa May ‘no’ when needed, Norman is a fine choice. His wrangles with the Conservatives, most notably Eric Pickles over roads, demonstrate that he is able to defend Lib Dem policy in a mature way, without picking the Coalition apart. Compared to this, Theresa May’s very public tantrum about his addition to her office seems positively childlike. I almost feel bad for Norman - he has to start his first day in the context of one of his colleagues having written to the Daily Mail about how much she hates him. In any other profession, that would be regarded as unprofessional as hell, but somehow politicians can get away with it.
Also, think about this. Norman is known for being sceptical about the motives of the Government, particularly the security services. The right-wing press has attacked him as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ which is unfair - anybody who thinks that the Government has never been complicit in covering up illegal activity is simply mad. Norman’s respect for civil liberties and for accountability in Government leads him to be suspicious of the powers the state can exercise - isn’t that a fine quality in somebody who’s portfolio now includes: drugs and alcohol policy, use of DNA, powers of police & local authorities, public order, use of surveillance and CCTV? If you ask me, that’s a post where we need a liberal, if there ever was one.