Andy McSmith's Diary: Ruffled ermine as David Cameron pays for overlooking the Lords in last week's reshuffle

  • @andymcsmith

David Cameron has had to soothe the ruffled ermine of outraged peers by promising a seat in his Cabinet for their leader, Baroness Stowell, if the Conservatives win the general election.

In his anxiety to head off a Lords’ revolt, he has also inflicted a new humiliation on his friend Michael Gove, who lost his Cabinet seat last week, and who finds himself this week one more place down the official ministerial pecking order, behind the Baroness.

To add to the Prime Minister’s embarrassment, Lady Stowell has refused an offer to have her salary topped up from Conservative Party funds.

As he reshuffled his Cabinet last week, the Prime Minister completely failed to foresee that longstanding members of the House of Lords might take it as a personal insult when he decided to replace Lord Hill, who was a Cabinet Minister, with Tina Stowell, who was told she would be only a middle-ranking minister, on a lower salary. It is the first time in UK history that there has been a Cabinet in which there are no members of the House Lords.

After the initial outcry about his expecting a woman to accept a lower salary when taking over from a man, Mr Cameron tried to smooth matters over by announcing that Baroness’s Stowell’s salary would be topped up out of Conservative Party funds, because there is a ceiling on the number of Ministers who can be paid Cabinet salaries out of public funds.

But for many peers, that only added injury to insult, because they argued that the Leader of the House of Lords should be a public servant, not someone in the pay of a political party. A contingent of some of the most senior peers, including the former Speaker, Lady Boothroyd, and the former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Armstrong, were preparing a formal protest.

But in a letter to the Association of Conservative Peers, David Cameron insisted that he never meant to insult the upper house, and he has now made a written promise that Baroness Stowell will be promoted to the Cabinet at “the earliest opportunity”, and at the latest by May 2015, if he is still Prime Minister.

Lady Stowell has also written to senior peers saying that she has turned down the offer of a pay increase subsidised by the Conservative Party because “I am all too aware that my responsibilities extend beyond the Conservative benches to the House as a whole”.

What a job for Justine!

The photographs of Ed Miliband in the White House with Barack Obama only reinforce the point that cameras are just not kind to Ed Miliband. Some people look odd in the flesh but come over well through a lens. Ed Miliband has the opposite problem.

However, this is being addressed, to judge from a laudatory profile of the Labour leader’s wife, Justine Thornton, by the political editor of Huffington Post, Mehdi Hasan. It will be her task, he writes, to “humanise” Ed Miliband and “anchor him in the real world.”  And to keep him off the bacon sandwiches, presumably.

Minister’s literary mix-up

Ring, ring went the phone at Pan Macmillan. A very interesting call came through. It was the office of Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, urgently wanting to contact the crime writer Malcolm Mackay. This was something of a surprise. Mackay is not yet such a big name that he can expect urgent calls from cabinet ministers.

His publisher rang back to check that the message really was for Malcolm Mackay, the crime writer. Oh yes, they said, definitely. They couldn’t say what the call was about: Danny wanted to speak to the author directly. So they gave his number to the Downing Street switchboard.

The conversation that ensued was short and confused, because Danny Alexander came on the line thinking that he was talking not to Malcolm Mackay, the crime writer, but Malcolm  “Malky” Mackay, former manager of Cardiff football club. The switchboard had mixed up their Malcolms.