‘Waste of time’: Lib Dems suffer backbench teething problems

By Alex Stevenson

Senior backbench Liberal Democrat MPs are struggling to get to grips with the committees supposed to preserve their party’s identity within the coalition, politics.co.uk can reveal.

Its parliamentary policy committees were set up, after a lengthy delay, in a bid to maintain the party’s independent voice following the formation of the coalition government.

One co-chair charged with one of the biggest policy portfolios said the committees were a “waste of time”.

He criticised the party’s policy formation process, which he said could take up to 18 months to shift direction, and claimed the committees had “no real influence” on the government.

Another, home affairs policy committee co-chair Tom Brake, argued that the committees served as an effective “early warning system” for ministers, enabling them to flag up party concerns about particular policies.

Mr Brake said he had spent numerous meetings with home secretary Theresa May focusing on controversial issues like control orders and child detention, but added: “It’s hard to say yet whether we’ve secured any change of policy as the result of these meetings.”

Despite being set up before the summer recess there appears to be contradictory views about the committees’ remit.

Martin Horwood, who co-chairs the committee overseeing the transport brief, said that he was the party’s spokesperson on all areas not covered by the Lib Dems’ minister in the Department for Transport, Norman Baker.

“We are filling in the gaps,” he explained. “We are of the coalition, but not in government.”

But Lorely Burt, who chairs both meetings of the parliamentary party and the business policy committee, insisted the committee co-chairs were spokespersons across all areas of their portfolio.

“We maintain that Lib Dem voice in all areas of debate… whether there is or whether there isn’t a Lib Dem minister,” she said.

After the coalition’s formation in May Lib Dem MPs expressed private concerns about whether the party would be ‘forgotten about’ by voters.

Numerous proposals, including one to retain ‘shadow’ spokespersons, were under discussion for nearly two months until a group chaired by Ms Burt published its recommendations for the establishment of parliamentary policy committees.

“There is a danger, some people say, that we will get identified with all the least popular decisions of the government and get the credit for none of the fairness elements which we feel we’ve contributed to,” Ms Burt explained.

“We are a critical friend. We are in constant contact with our ministers. We pass forward suggestions and observations.”

An unnamed co-chair told politics.co.uk that “teething problems” were still ongoing. The extent to which the backbench committees can openly disagree with Lib Dem ministers is especially unclear.

“Should we ever choose to be critical of coalition policy, we are free to do so,” Mr Horwood added.

“I expect to be supporting the coalition most of the time.”

Both he and Mr Brake argued public disagreement between ministers was an essential part of life in coalition.

“You need that safety valve for the two parties, if not for nobody else,” Mr Brake explained.

“The coalition partners would have to be saintly if there was never anything they thought that was so fundamental they didn’t have a tendency occasionally to stray into the public domain with it.”

Lib Dems, obliged to vote to support ministers as government backbenchers, can only go so far in opposition, however, meaning the policy committees’ ability to publicly challenge the government remains limited.

Ms Burt said she was “sure” the committees were experiencing teething problems, commenting: “We’ve only been at this for a short while and there are a varying number of people who are in each particular team.”