Nick Clegg has been on something of a drive to rehabilitate his civil libertarian credentials in recent months after the Secret Courts debacle (my word, definitely not his), nuking the Communications Data Bill, reversing the party’s position on Secret Courts, and securing numerous compromises over the Lobbying Bill.
But the latest step – putting Norman 'conspiracy theory' Baker into the Home Office seemed, for many non-Liberal Democrats, a step too far. "Did the Freemasons stage the moon landings? If so, new Home Office minister Norman Baker will find out…" and "Norman Baker is a green-ink crank – Theresa May will be furious with Cameron and Clegg for appointing him" are two of my favourite reactions from recent days.
Leaving aside the fact that driving Theresa May to distraction seems a perfectly acceptable reason for appointing him, Norman Baker, as many will testify, Norman Baker has been an effective and admired minister at Transport and he’ll do a brilliant job in the Home Office. But – and I’m going to be a touch 'conspiracy theorist' myself now – could there be another reason for Norman’s appointment?
There has been disquiet in recent weeks among the Lib Dem grassroots about the lack of vocal outrage in the parliamentary party about the Prism and Tempora revelations, which presumably went some way to 'helping' Nick make the decision to make a change at the Home Office. But could it also be that Nick knew that the security services were about to make another play to bring the Communications Data Bill (aka the Snooper's Charter) back to the table?
How else to interpret the words of the new head of MI5, Sir Andrew Parker, when he said last night?
"Retaining the capability to access such information is intrinsic to MI5's ability to protect the country. There are choices to be made including about how and whether communications data is retained. It is not, however, an option to disregard such shifts with an unspoken assumption that somehow security will anyway be sustained. It will not. We cannot work without tools."
It looks like the debate about the rights of the security services to retain data about UK citizens is going to start all over again. And if it is, I, for one, feel happier knowing I’ve got a green-ink using, card carrying conspiracy theorist sitting in the Home Office. And, I guess, so does Nick Clegg.
Good luck to you, Norman.
Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference