In the wake of the most startling, WTF? political appointment since ... But whoa, hang on, even the laziest analogist on God’s earth cannot flog Caligula’s long dead horse to contextualise the scintillatingly mystifying case of Norman Baker’s reshuffle posting. That eccentric Emperor never made Incitatus consul of Rome, despite the myth, whereas Nick Clegg has actually promoted Mr Baker to the Home Office.
The question of why he did so will provoke so many conspiracy theories (we will touch on some below) that Mr Baker may require another year’s leave from his conventional duties to write a book about them. That would come in succession to The Strange Death of Dr David Kelly, the 2007 meisterwork in which he posited that a hit squad of Iraqi dissidents iced the weapons inspector in the woods, and that the security services covered this up for reasons of political expediency. Truth be told, I sated myself with the Daily Mail serialisation rather than wade through the tome. As John Rentoul pointed out on the radio yesterday, the professional conspiracy theory debunker David Aaronovitch did the heavy lifting for us there.
Anyway, Norman Baker’s first meeting with the head of MI5 should be tremendous fun, and since we incessantly bemoan the dearth of merriment in high politics (hence the cult of Boris Johnson), let us metaphorically high-five Mr Clegg for such a sensationally entertaining manoeuvre.
Before we come to a few of those theories, fairness demands it be noted that Mr Baker is not entirely the “raving madman” he will now be mercilessly portrayed as being. After entering the Commons in 1997, he established himself as what Matthew Parris called a “Lib Dem supernerd”, albeit another Parrisian reference to him as “a classic House of Commons bore” seemed to underplay his talent for stultifying the House to the precipice of catatonia.
Mr Parris and others later came to respect him a little, since on various issues Mr Baker had a knack for being right. Vince Cable would confirm that being regularly proved correct is no guarantor of being taken seriously. Even if it was, however, and even if Mr Baker had been right about 999,999 things in a row, being so mesmerisingly wrong about the millionth – Dr Kelly’s suicide – dealt a blow to his credibility from which no one could expect to recover. Factor in his dark hint about Robin Cook dying on Ministry of Defence ground (one he quickly, feebly tried to pass off as a joke), and no leader on nodding terms with sanity would dream of sending Mr Baker to the department responsible for security issues. Or so you would have thought.
Reasoning that the louche old rascal was ostentatiously potty, many thought Mrs Thatcher had taken leave of her senses when she made Alan Clark her minister for defence procurement. Take away the ogling of jiggling globes on trains, the love of Adolf Hitler, the castle in Kent and the fearsome intellect, and it almost becomes possible to picture Norman Baker as a Pooterish, Bizarro World version of Mr Clark. Yet even that fanciful vision gives so little flavour of how surreal this appointment is that a glance at some of those conspiracy theories cannot be delayed.
1. Frustrated Satirist: After years of playing the sober, responsible leader, Mr Clegg could no longer resist the volcanic pressure to unveil himself as a master satirist, and deployed Mr Baker as a savage commentary on the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the political system. Here, there is a parallel with Caligula, who pondered making the horse consul, according to Suetonius, to highlight the cowardice of a Senate which would have automatically rubber-stamped the appointment.
2. Tory Sleeper: More than the closet Conservative of his crude, post-tuition fees caricature, the deputy prime minister is a fully-fledged Tory mole, inserted under deep cover into the Lib Dem hierarchy long ago by a cabal of Carlton Club plotters. His brief was to lie low until, within sight of a finely balanced general election, he had the chance to paint his nominal party as ineffably crackpot, and gift the Conservatives a priceless opportunity to dismiss their coalition partner as terminally frivolous.
3. TV Prankster: Since the passing of Jeremy Beadle, British telly has lacked a prime-time ratings banker with a broad and vulgar take on the jolly jape. Fearing he will lose his Sheffield seat in 2015, the deputy PM used Mr Baker’s appointment as an audition for the Saturday night ITV1 series, Clegg’s Chumps. If so, expect the big reveal from the Dispatch Box later this week, when – rocking with fake mirth – he will declare it was a giant prank, and that Mr Baker has in fact been moved to the Department of Proving the Moon Landings were Mocked Up in a Hollywood Studio (DPMLMUHS).
4. Wind-up: The most widely credited theory advanced thus far contends that Mr Clegg, the mischievous sprite, sent Mr Baker to Theresa May’s department solely to send the Home Secretary into a frenzy of incandescent rage. Since she was not consulted about the move, and would rather be saddled with Fidel Castro, this he has achieved.
5. Nominative confusion: Now and again, according to what may be a canard, a perplexing ministerial appointment stems from a cock-up whereby an appointee is mistaken for someone with a similar name. On this occasion, Mr Clegg confused Norman Baker with Norman Lamb, the Lib Dem business minister, or the genius broadcaster Danny Baker. However, even Mr Baker (both Mr Bakers, come to that) may struggle to believe that.
6. Tactical Repositioning: With the election approaching, Mr Clegg is under huge pressure to move leftwards to deflect the charge of being a Tory stooge. To this end, having failed to persuade both Arthur Scargill and Swampy to take ermine and do the Home Office job from the Lib Dem benches in the Lords, he had no option but to plump for Norman Baker.
7. Surveillance Concerns: Recent revelations about the blanket digital surveillance carried out by America’s NSA and our own GCHQ compelled Mr Clegg to insert someone at the Home Office to keep an eye on this unnerving development from the inside. After considering every available Lib Dem MP, he concluded that the one who could most credibly raise concerns about security matters is the guy who wrote the book about how MI5 covered up Dr Dav... Nope, can’t go on with that. Too bonkers.
There will probably be a myriad of other theories straining to decrypt his decision, from the tediously obvious (nervous breakdown) to the more recherche (a play for the key “Mossad masterminded 9/11” demographic), though as with JFK’s assassination the full truth may never emerge. What seems dead easy to predict is that Mr Clegg will now be torn to the tiniest shreds – and not only by the Tories and the papers who support them – for the most eye-catching, head-scratching ministerial appointment in Westminster history. If and when he finds himself as bamboozled by his logic as the rest of us, and desperate for a theory to make sense of it, at least he will know who to call.