Lib Dem lone rangers ‘need more help’

By Alex Stevenson

Isolated Liberal Democrat ministers in Conservative-dominated government departments are struggling to keep their heads above water, an expert has warned.

Akash Paun of the Institute for Government (IfG) says government insiders have warned that the so-called ‘watchdog ministers’ are struggling to do their day jobs while simultaneously keeping tabs on the whole department.

Only five of the 23 Cabinet posts are held by Lib Dem secretaries of state, while they hold just 12 of the 71 junior ministerial posts.

In the Departments for Transport, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office they only have a more junior parliamentary secretary representing their interests.

“What we’ve heard is that it’s very difficult for them – they’re stretched and are not supported enough to do it,” Mr Paun told

The IfG’s recent report, United We Stand?, addressed this problem by calling for junior ministers to have special advisers appointed to them.

“Insiders confirm that Liberal Democrat ministers are facing greater pressures on their time… but their more junior status entitles them to less support than that provided to secretaries of state,” the report pointed out.

While some departments have handed Lib Dem junior ministers a dedicated assistant private secretary, the IfG argues special advisers are needed, especially in departments where the secretary of state is a Tory – health, education, justice, defence, work and pensions and the Foreign Office.

Mr Paun says further steps are needed to address the problems currently blighting the coalition’s work. “The overall picture is a bit unbalanced – that’s problematic,” he explained.

The IoG has already secured one big policy success. Its demands for Nick Clegg to receive more support were swiftly followed by the appointment of a senior civil servant, at permanent secretary rank, to oversee his work.

But problems remain, creating the potential for divisive decisions to go ahead before they are flagged up by concerned Lib Dems.

“The risk remains that if you don’t have enough people there, if they’re not sufficiently resourced, something may just slip through the cracks. They may not pick up on some big policy decision or appointment,” Mr Paun added.

“There just may not be enough people to spot the potential points of trouble on the Liberal Democrat side. Something will get announced by the government and then the dispute will come afterwards, because those communication channels weren’t enough to head off the problem in advance.”

The appointment of retail giant Sir Philip Green to oversee a review of the government’s procurement practices is a possible example of this. The IfG recommends increasing the overall number of Lib Dem ministers to minimise the impact of this.