The mystery of Jo Swinson's appointment as equalities minister

Why was the Lib Dem appointed a week after everyone else?

You may have missed it amid the cacophony of "bigotgate", but eight days after the reshuffle started it’s still going on, and Britain has woken up this morning with a new equalities minister – Jo Swinson.

There were many things in last week's reshuffle that upset the Lib Dems. The appointment of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary and Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary went down universally badly, the return of David Laws was greeted with an equal amount of cheers and jeers (depending on which wing of the party you spoke to to), and there was a certain amount of disquiet about how we appeared to lose all influence on international policy with the removal of Lib Dem ministers from both the Foreign Office and the MoD.

But the one thing that rankled above all else was the removal of the equalities portfolio from the hands of a much respected Lib Dem minister, Lynne Featherstone, and its transfer to a Tory. Unmitigated fury and universal condemnation has been the theme of the week. And now it appears something has been done, coalition conversations have been had and Swinson has been named as an equalities minister – "our" equalities minister, to quote Clegg.

This move will delight just about every Lib Dem. Swinson is a rising star, much admired for her work on campaigns like Body Confidence, and she will do a fantastic job. But once the euphoria subsides, other questions arise. For example, the matter of why the previous equalities minister, Lynn Featherstone, had this responsibility removed. Everyone thought she did a first class job – so where did she go wrong? There are now no fewer than three equalities ministers – what will they all do? And why has Swinson been appointed a week after everyone else – it couldn’t be evidence of coalition government not quite working? Bit of a row, perhaps?

I feel a bit like the kid for whom Father Christmas came a week late. Thank you for the presents – I’m thrilled. But where have you been for the last week - stuck up the chimney? And why are you giving me my old toys back?

New equalities minister Jo Swinson with Nick Clegg earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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