Norman's conquest: Mr Baker 'will be missed'

The outgoing minister was more than just a troublemaker in the Home Office

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The Independent Online

Norman Baker, liberal hero and refugee from the Home Office, described the experience of working with Theresa May as like “walking through mud”.

That, we may safely assume, was a polite version of the ordeal, which he managed to endure for just over a year.

In his resignation interview, Mr Baker made it clear that the Home Secretary regarded the Government as basically Tory, with Liberal Democrat ministers there at best under sufferance. Ms May apparently sometimes laboured under the illusion that the Conservatives had won the 2010 general election with a comfortable majority. Every time she gazed upon the doleful countenance of Mr Baker, Ms May will have been reminded of the unpalatable reality that they did not.

In fact, Ms May serves in a Coalition Government, courtesy of the electorate, and is not at liberty to choose all of her own junior ministers, nor able to pursue a “traditional” Conservative agenda. When Mr Baker insisted on publishing a perfectly factual, thought-provoking paper on the relationship between criminal penalties and drug usage, she couldn’t stop him from doing so, let alone sack him. All her spin doctors could do was to try to make out that the Home Office’s paper was in fact the responsibility of Mr Baker alone, and not as a minister but an MP, a fairly pathetic response easily batted away by the indefatigable member for Lewes. All things considered, the Norman Baker experience can’t have been much fun for Ms May either.

Mr Baker was thus the living embodiment of the “brakes” theory of the Liberal Democrats’ role in the Coalition – stalling, slowing and occasionally thwarting the worst excesses of what an unfettered Conservative government would get up to. On migration, for example, Mr Baker would have spoken up for the report today on the true benefits of it. On civil liberties and human rights, on Europe, on the economy, on tax cuts for the rich, on education reforms and, as in Mr Baker’s case, on drugs policy, the Liberal Democrats were there as a civilising, liberalising and rational force for good. In the Home Office it might be said that Mr Baker curbed Ms May’s nastier instincts.

A few things follow from the resignation of Mr Baker, and a few things do not. It does not, for example, mean the end of the Lib Dem-Conservative government, even though it sheds light on some of the personality issues that overlay sincere differences on principle and policy. In some departments – the Treasury for example, or Transport during Mr Baker’s time there – these seem to be better handled than at the Home Office, and there was obviously more cross-party consensus about reducing the budget deficit and road improvements than decriminalising cannabis. What it does mean is that Mr Baker is able to redouble his efforts to save his Sussex parliamentary seat from the predations of the Tories, and we should be able to welcome him back to the Commons next year, his position in his party having been strengthened.

What this affair also means is that, paradoxically, Mr Baker has boosted Ms May’s standing in her own party. Already touted, occasionally by herself, as leadership material, being the scourge of the Lib Dems will do Ms May no harm when the time comes to take on Boris Johnson and George Osborne for the succession. If Ms May does ever become our second female prime minister, and she is obliged to invite Mr Baker to join her in a Con-Lib Dem coalition cabinet, he, and she, will only have themselves to blame for that particular instance of the law of unintended consequences.