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 senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Celebrate Labour's electoral success - but don't forget the working class

The shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face. 

In the moment when the exit poll was released on 8 June, after seven weeks of slogging up and down the streets of Britain, dealing with scepticism, doubt and sometimes downright hostility, we felt a combination of relief, optimism, even euphoria.
 
This election broke wide open some assumptions that have constrained us on the left for too long; that the young won’t vote, that any one individual or political party is “unelectable”, that perceptions of both individuals, parties and even policies cannot change suddenly and dramatically. It reminded us that courage, ambition and hope are what’s needed and what have been missing from our politics, too often, for too long.
 
We have learnt to tread carefully and wear our values lightly. But in recent weeks we have remembered that our convictions can, as Jonathan Freedland once wrote, “bring hope flickering back to life” and meet the growing appetite for a politics that doesn’t simply rail against what is but aspires to build a world that is better.
 
In this election at least, it seems the final, anticipated fracture of Labour from its working-class base after Brexit did not materialise. Shortly before the snap election was called I wrote that while Brexit appeared to be Labour’s greatest weakness, it could just be our biggest strength, because: “consider what remain voting Tottenham and leave voting Wigan have in common: Labour… We will succeed if we seek the common ground shared by the decent, sensible majority, and more importantly, so will Britain.”
 
But consider this too. The Tories ran a terrible campaign. It was, without any doubt,the most inept, counter-productive campaign I’ve ever seen in British politics. The day their manifesto hit the headlines, even in our toughest neighbourhoods, we could feel change in the air. Arrogance is never rewarded by the British people and Theresa May has paid a price for it. Yet, despite a Tory manifesto that was a full, square attack on older people, the majority of over 65s still came out for the Tories.
 
And despite the growing relevance of freedom, internationalism and tolerance in an era characterised by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Liberal Democrats managed to become bystanders in the political debate. They stood on a platform that aimed to capture the support of those remain voters for whom Brexit is the major question, but neglected the rest. And they quite spectacularly failed to foresee that those who were intensely angered by May’s conversion to a little England, hard Brexit stance would vote tactically against the Tories. Over those seven weeks, they all but disappeared as a political force.
 
As Bob Dylan once said, "the times, they are a-changin" – and they will change again. The recent past has moved at extraordinary speed. The Brexit Referendum, the rise and retreat of nationalism, the election of Trump and his crushing unpopularity just a few months later, the reversal in fortunes for May and Jeremy Corbyn, the astonishing phenomenon of Emmanuel Macron and pro-European centrism, and the dramatic rise and sudden collapse of Ukip. Politics, as John Harris wrote last week, is now more fluid than ever. So now is the time, for hope yes, and for conviction too, but not for jubilation. We need some serious thinking. 
 
We should be cautious to rush to judgment. It is only two weeks since the exit poll sent shockwaves across the country. There is no comprehensive explanation for the multitude of motivations that delivered this election result and will not be for some time. But there are some early indictors that must make us think. 
 
After seven years of austerity, as John Curtice observes, the Tories made some of their biggest gains in some of the poorest areas of Britain. It is something I felt in all of the eight constituencies I campaigned in during the election. While the Labour vote rose significantly in towns like Wigan, so too did the Tory vote, despite little or no campaigning activity on the ground. As Rob Ford puts it, “Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales… Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017”.
 
To acknowledge the growing, longstanding scepticism of many working-class men, and women, towards Labour in towns across England is not to take away from the hard work and drive of the activists, advisers and politicians that helped to fuel such a dramatic turnaround for Labour during the short campaign. To have won considerable gains in wealthier suburbs is no small achievement. 
 
But if the future of Labour lies in a coalition between middle-class young professionals and the working class, what is the glue that binds? While there is shared agreement about investment in public services, how are those interests to be squared on areas like national security and immigration? I believe it can and must be done, but – as I said to conference when I was first elected seven years ago - it will demand that we begin with the difficult questions, not the easy ones.  
 
Just a few days before the election, statistics were released that pointed to a collapse in trade union membership. What does the decline of an organised Labour movement mean for who we are and what we can achieve? These are not new questions. They were posed by Eric Hobsbawm in his brilliant lecture, "The Forward March of Labour Halted" in 1979 - a challenge laid down in the year I was born. Now, 37 years on, we are no further down the road to answering it. 
 
The most dramatic finding from this election was the support Corbyn’s Labour party appears to have won from middle-class, young professionals. They said he couldn’t do it and quite stunningly it seems they were wrong. But a ComRes poll last week caught my eye – by a large margin those 30-44 year olds would favour a new centre-ground political party over the current political settlement. In an election where we returned strongly to two-party politics, it appears they moved to us. But what would a dynamic and renewed Liberal Democrat Party, or a British En Marche do to our support base?
 
After a hellish two years we have learnt in Labour, I hope, that unity matters. The public and private anger directed towards each other, whether the Labour leadership, the parliamentary Labour party or elected councillors, is desperately damaging and its (relative) absence in the campaign was important.
 
But unity is not the same as uniformity, and while two weeks ago I felt there was a real danger of historic fracture, now I believe the shutting down of genuine, constructive debate on the left is the great danger we face, and must avoid. No one person, faction or party has ever had the monopoly on wisdom. The breadth of the Labour movement was and remains our greatest strength. 
 
Consider the Labour manifesto, which drew on every tradition across our movement and demanded that every part of the party had to compromise. Those broad traditions still matter and are still relevant because they hear and are attuned to different parts of Britain. Our country is changing and politics must catch up. The future will be negotiated, not imposed.
 
As we witness the age of "strong man" politics across the world, here in Britain our political culture has become angrier and more illiberal than at any time I can remember. The Brexit debate was characterised by rage, misinformation and a macho political culture that demanded that we abandon nuance and complexity, an understanding of one another and tolerance of different points of view.
 
But this is not where the future of Britain lies: it lies in pluralism. It lies in a politics that is nimbler, more fleet of foot, less constrained; a return to the great tradition of debate, evidence, experience and argument as a way to build broad coalitions and convince people; not shouting one another down, nor believing any of us are always right; an arena in which we listen as much as we speak; a political culture in which we are capable of forming alliances within and across party lines to achieve real, lasting change.
 
And ultimately that’s the prize: not just seek power but, to paraphrase a philosopher whose work inspired millions, in the end “the point is to change it”. We could sit tight in Labour and hope to see the current government fall apart. We might even inherit power, we could temporarily reverse some of the worst of the last seven years, but what then? If we have learnt anything from 13 years of Labour government it should be this: that to build lasting change is the hardest political task of all, and it requires now that we do not turn to the political culture, the tools or even the ideas of the past, but that we think hard about where the future of our movement and our country really lies. Now is not the time to sit back and celebrate. Now is the time to think.

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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