So the backlash against Danny Alexander has begun. No, not the half-hearted effort by the Telegraph to detect scandal in his apparently pretty blameless expense claims (NB: exactly when will the DT stop pretending that buying and, er, reading a document counts as ‘investigative journalism’?). More the muttering that has started over the weekend that he is not qualified for the Chief Secretary role and/or simply not up to the job.
All I can say is that Danny must be as surprised as anyone to find himself in this job. And, yes, he is not as well-qualified to do it as David Laws. He hasn’t been in Parliament that long, and he hasn’t yet established himself as a tough political operator. But it’s incredibly presumptuous and patronising to assume anything about how he will perform. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt – for a day or two at least.
I am much more concerned about what this whole episode tells us about coalition politics. Let’s look at what was facing Cameron and Clegg on Saturday as they realised that their respected Chief Secretary had to resign. He really did have to go, by the way, no matter what some politicians have said (do they not understand the world changed last year?). The only question was who should replace Laws in the Treasury.
Was their first thought the view of the bond market, which after all is behind this whole drive for austerity? That would have led them surely to Philip Hammond, as the best-qualified person, someone absolutely respected by the City. No, because the politics of course are that both parties have to be tied in to the cuts to come: it has to be a Liberal Democrat alongside Osborne in the Treasury, slashing and burning.
So that takes you inevitably to Chris Huhne. He understands economics, he ‘gets’ the City. For a LibDem he is a big political beast. So why is Huhne not joining the Treasury team this morning? Clegg and Cameron must have thought of him, but he is not there. Why?
No matter how important Huhne’s role at the Department of Energy and Climate Change the decision to appoint Alexander instead of him raises a whole load of ugly questions. Did Clegg not fancy the competition of a prominent Huhne? Or did Osborne block his appointment on similar grounds? Perhaps Huhne was felt not to be ‘sound’ on the need for big cuts? Or perhaps Huhne himself said he didn’t feel able to be a ‘cutter’ – or simply didn’t want to leave a department where he is biggest cheese to play second fiddle to Osborne in the Treasury?
Whatever the reasons, what we have ended up with is a relatively junior, unproven but very loyal guy in what is arguably the most important job in the coalition. It looks very much like old-fashioned power politics has trumped the biggest responsibility of our new coalition government, the need to show to the markets that we are now fiscally responsible and trustworthy. Welcome – again – to the new politics…