Norman Baker has made a noise over leaving a largely symbolic role

Baker's resignation was done with next year's election in mind

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I once apologised to Norman Baker for thinking he was more sensible than he was. He was reported by his local newspaper as saying that Robin Cook "was on Ministry of Defence land, I believe, when he died and certainly I have doubts over what happened".

Sadly, a lot of intelligent people share Baker’s belief that David Kelly, the government scientist who disparaged the Iraq dossier, was murdered, so I said his Cook conspiracy theory ought to encourage them to think again about the sort of people peddling this distasteful nonsense.

Baker got in touch, saying that he had not said, and had "no reason to think", that Cook had been murdered. He had made a "flippant" comment that had been misinterpreted. Noting that his definition of flippant was different from mine, I changed my report and apologised to him.

Then, however, I read David Aaronovitch’s book about conspiracy theories and why people want to believe in them – Voodoo Histories – and discovered, because Aaronovitch had taken the trouble to read Baker’s book, that Baker did after all think that Cook’s death might be connected to his views on Iraq. I then had to apologise for my original apology.

It was surprising, therefore, that Baker was made a minister in the Coalition government. Surprising – and revealing of how the Coalition works. It was even more surprising that he was moved from Transport to the Home Office. I am all for compartmentalisation.

More Rentoul:
PMQs: Another game of smoke and daggers
Ed Miliband joins the five-year bandwagon
Why David Cameron can't speak up for migration

Baker is affable, and his music – he sings and plays in a band called The Reform Club – is better than One Direction's. But to install someone who thinks that the British security service colluded in murder as a minister in the department responsible for MI5 was curious. Even more curious was Baker’s lack of curiosity, as a Home Office minister, in pursuing the serious allegations that he had made at book length against his own department.

Now we survey the complex irony of someone of Baker’s purported beliefs resigning from the Government complaining that it would not let him follow “rational, evidence-based policy”. He was not referring to his opinion that Dr Kelly was the victim of a “wet disposal” (conspiracy theorese for a deniable assassination), but to his trying to stand up to Theresa May, the Control-Freak-in-Chief, over the liberalisation of drugs laws.

This is mere positioning. Baker was appointed for symbolic reasons. He is popular with Lib Dem members, with whom Clegg wanted to curry favour. He was promoted for symbolic reasons. Jeremy Browne was sacked for disloyalty to Clegg, and Baker, who is no threat, given his job.

 

Baker’s role as a Home Office minister was also mostly symbolic. The Lib Dems knew there was no hope of the Conservatives agreeing to change the law on drugs. They are so sure of this that they have not even bothered to work out whether they want to decriminalise or legalise cannabis. They are happy simply to pose as the party of opposition that they used to be, repeating old soundbites about “losing the war on drugs”.

Nick Clegg knows that there is a market for this comforting rhetoric among a minority of the electorate, and he knows that this minority is larger than the 8 per cent of voters currently intending to vote Lib Dem. (However, an “evidence-based” policy on drugs might conclude, for example, that drug use, including alcohol and tobacco, is falling in all age groups and that therefore there is no case for a change in the law.)

Finally, Baker’s resignation is symbolic of the split in Lib Dem thinking about the nature of coalition government. There are many Lib Dem activists, and indeed many Lib Dem ministers, who want to disengage from the Coalition before the election, to try to put as much distance as possible between them and the Tories. There are others, including Clegg, who think they have a duty to show that they can see a coalition government through for a whole term. Not that Clegg is consistent about this. The gist of his speech to his party’s recent annual conference was: “When I find out who has been propping up this wicked Tory government, there’ll be trouble.”

But at other times Clegg makes the attractive argument that two parties came together to set out a programme for five years, which involved each of them making compromises, but which produced something that was in the national interest and that ought to be seen through.

Baker’s departure inadvertently strengthens this “Good Clegg” argument. Baker looks as if he is off because he finds the responsibilities of power tiresome. As James Lyons of the Daily Mirror commented, Baker’s advice for his successor, Lynne Featherstone, was: “Be firm; don’t give in”, as he “gives up and walks away”.

The Lib Dems are marching towards the sound of gunfire, as Jo Grimond, the Liberal leader, urged them to do in 1963, and will be mown down at the coming election regardless. But surely they should prefer to be cut down from the front, having said that they believed in parties working together in the national interest, rather than from behind, running away from responsibility?

Comments