Norman Baker has resigned from the Home Office. Photo: Getty
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Lib Dem Norman Baker quits as Home Office minister

Revealing the extent of coalition clashes in the Home Office, the Lib Dem minister has resigned.

In a tempestuous time for the Home Secretary Theresa May, in which she has had to apologise to child abuse survivors for her failure to appoint an appropriate chair for the inquiry, one of her ministers has resigned, criticising her treatment of Lib Dem coalition colleagues.

Norman Baker, who has served as Home Office minister since October 2013, announced his decision to step down this morning, telling the Independent in an exclusive interview that May viewed Lib Dems in government as "a cuckoo in the nest", and that trying to work in her department was like "walking through mud".

In his resignation letter, addressed to Nick Clegg, he regrets the lack of "goodwill to work collegiately" in the department, and refers to "repeated Conservative efforts to block release" of a report about drugs that has caused him to clash with May in recent weeks. Baker called for sweeping changes to the UK's approach to drug use, focusing more on treatment that "1950s" style rhetoric and punishment, following the results of a report published by the Home Office, which he suggested the Tories had been holding back on purpose.

However, speaking on the BBC's Today programme this morning, the Lib Dem president Tim Farron MP said Baker had "not specifically" resigned over the drug spat, revealing, "my understanding is that Norman indicated a desire to leave government some weeks ago", and was staying on to see the drugs report through. 

The BBC's Iain Watson is also reporting that the disgruntled Baker had been tempted to quit for some time, but Clegg had so far managed to persuade him to stay in the post. Clegg says he has been a "brilliant" minister, and claims that he has "handled the political relationships within government with great skill".

Farron told Today that "the issue" was with May in the Home Office, rather than with Baker, who has served under multiple other Tory ministers: "The issue really is on the other side. I’m not the one here to lay in to Theresa May but there is a sense in the Home Office, and across all sides of government, that Theresa May behaves as though the Conservatives won the last election, and they didn’t . . . it’s an insult to the electorate to act as though they did."

Baker was a surprise appointment in 2013, replacing the more hard-headed Lib Dem, Jeremy Browne, as Home Office minister. Many criticised the move due to his claims back in 2003, when he was a backbencher, that the government scientist David Kelly was murdered in 2003 and the UK authorities hushed it up; he wrote a book called The Strange Death of David Kelly in 2007. May was said to be "spitting tacks" over his appointment.

I remember speaking to a Lib Dem special adviser at the time, who said the motive to replace Browne was that he hadn't "shown he was doing anything particularly radical" while in his post, suggesting that the more right-wing minister had to an extent gone native in the Tory-run department.

Baker himself, though drastically more liberal than the Home Secretary, has up until very recently been insisting that there is no coalition rift in the department. I remember him telling Total Politics magazine earlier this year, when asked which Home Secretary he most admires: "I actually think Theresa May is a very competent Home Secretary so I admire her in that sense. You’ve got to be pretty reasonable to last in that job for that length of time."

Here is his letter to Nick Clegg, announcing his resignation:

Rt Hon Nick Clegg

Deputy Prime Minister

Saturday 1 November 2014

Dear Nick

I am writing to confirm my request, which I first raised with you in August, to take a break from ministerial office when a convenient moment arises. I understand this is likely to be next week.

You will know that I have spent four and a half years in ministerial office, three and a half at the Department for Transport and the last year at the Home Office. I have enjoyed this time very much, and while I feel I have been able to discharge my duties effectively while also giving proper attention to my constituency, this combination has been very demanding and has squeezed the time available for my family and my outside interests, including my music.

You will recognise that it has been particularly challenging being the only Lib Dem in the Home Office, which I see a newspaper the other day likened to being the only hippy at an Iron Maiden concert. Despite these challenges, I am pleased with what I have been able to achieve, not least to have been the first minister with responsibility for drugs to have put prejudice aside and published an evidence-based approach to this important issue, despite repeated Conservative efforts to block release.

I am also pleased, amongst other things, to have been able to create a cross-departmental commitment to tackling FGM, to have nursed into law a new more effective approach to anti-social behaviour, and to have launched a ground-breaking Government document that promotes alternatives to animal experiments. 

However, in stark contrast to the Department for Transport, I regret that in the Home Office, the goodwill to work collegiately to take forward rational evidence-based policy has been in somewhat short supply.

I have concluded, therefore, that for the time being at least, my time is better spent out of ministerial office.

You will of course continue to have my full support in the run-up to, and beyond, the next election which I anticipate is likely to produce another hung parliament. You have been, and are, an outstanding leader of the Lib Dems and I have been proud to have served in your team.

Best wishes,

Norman


Baker is also well-known for being a musician; he is the frontman in a band called the Reform Club, which released its first single Piccadilly Circus from its new album, Always Tomorrow, last year. Watch the video here.

The BBC reports that Baker has found his family and music time "squeezed" what with being a minister, but it's more likely that he had his work as a constituency MP on his mind when resigning. He is MP for Lewes, in Sussex, and has a relatively small majority of 7,647. Indeed, he only just wrangled it from the Tories in 1997 by 1,300 votes.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.