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Thursday 10th May 2012 | 20:00
WORDS: SAM MACRORY
In the frenetic first days of the coalition, as Downing Street released a staggered list of ministerial appointments, one name seemed to be missing. Where was Norman Lamb?
An MP for nine years, with a string of high profile posts on his CV and the added credibility of having re-mortgaged his house to help his son launch the career of an unknown rapper called Tinchy Stryder (“No, not yet”, Lamb replies with a smile when asked if he has played any of Stryder’s multi-selling records to his Tory colleagues), a ministerial role seemed a certainty for the man who had gone into the general election as the Lib Dem health spokesman. He was, however, nowhere to be seen.
Some say he was an accidental omission. Others suggest that the new health secretary Andrew Lansley, having feuded with Lamb in opposition, vetoed his appointment.
Instead, Lamb was handed the cobbled together-sounding post of parliamentary private secretary and political advisor to the deputy prime minister.
However, when Chris Huhne’s resignation as Energy Secretary in February triggered an enforced reshuffle, Lamb succeed Ed Davey – who moved to replace Huhne – as a minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Today, recently returned from an international ministerial gathering in Mexico and at last residing in a ministerial office of his own, with a private secretary to one side and a press officer to the other, Lamb looks very much the minister. Not surprisingly, he is in ebullient mood – but it must have been rather different when he missed out first time around?
“Well, I probably ought not to go into that” Lamb replies with a smile. “One day I will tell the story of what happened, but it’s probably best if I don’t develop that theme at this stage. Attending Cabinet was fascinating throughout that whole initial period [of the coalition], but the bottom line is I much prefer to be ‘doing’ in my own right rather than observing. Whilst I hope I performed a useful role, I don’t miss the role. I’m just very pleased to be doing this role.”
And, one would imagine, very pleased to be safely inside a government department and high above street level on the day when voters were angrily voting out Liberal Democrat councillors across the land. Lamb seemed braced for bad news.
“It’s very difficult for those people who are doing brilliant work in their local communities if they lose seats because of the position we are in in government, but you’ve got to try and do the right thing” he insists, before launching into a robust defence of the Liberal Democrats’ role in the coalition.
“Obviously you’re concerned about the impact of government on a party, but I think… there’s a sort of national duty, not to put it too highly, for parties to actually take some responsibility. We could have just opted out, we could have just said, you know, we’re not going to participate in this [and] we will just criticise from the sidelines.
Do you do that to maintain cheap popular support or do you just take responsibility and get stuck in? What’s the point of being in this job, why do it if, ultimately, you flunk it? I just think you take responsibility, you see it through, you try and explain and justify as much as you can and ultimately, even if you’ve gone through very difficult periods, if you can see it through and actually end up in a better place [then] there is a possible reward in that.”
In contrast to the tricky task of explaining the Lib Dem role in the coalition, however, the message at BIS is easy to understand.
The walls are lined with huge posters declaring that Entrepreneurs, Technology, and Engineering is Great (Britain), and Lamb is fully signed up to the mantra, even if the pace of ministerial life is something of an eye-opener.
“It’s overwhelming in terms of volumes of work so you end up working through the night, or deep into the night, but it’s really, really interesting stuff” he admits. “I love it. It’s great to … get your teeth into the challenges. There are so many different things that I’m interested in within the portfolio.”
And it is, Lamb is keen to stress, very much a Liberal Democrat portfolio. “I always assumed that policy making in the Lib Dems was an intellectual exercise which bore very little relation to reality, and now we’re actually implementing our policy making. I took through this rather controversial plan on Royal Mail to privatise it, or to partially privatise it, to establish employer-share ownership to separate Royal Mail off from Post Office Limited, and it’s what we’re doing” Lamb boasts, explaining that he drew up the policy as a shadow DTI spokesman nearly seven years ago.
“There can be a bit of an agenda about the Lib Dems being a block on reform, [but] I think Ed [Davey] and I are both instinctively reformers. We want to try and improve the way public services work, the way incentives work and so forth”, says Lamb, one foot firmly in the pro-market Orange Book wing of the Lib Dems, before setting out another Lib Dem policy at the fore of the BIS agenda.
“A big project I’ve got on is this DPM initiative on employer ownership. I’ve identified that as my number one priority in this period, to emerge in July, which is Nick’s timescale, with key proposals for facilitating a growth of employee ownership within the overall economy.”
Once again, the policy’s origins appear to be traceable to Lamb. “Last autumn I sent Nick an email saying ‘the germ of a big idea.’ And it was: ‘I really think you should go for employee ownership.’ We’ve got this window of opportunity in government. It’s a great liberal-sort of concept going back to Jo Grimond and indeed John Stuart Mill and so on. It’s rather odd that I initiated the thing then I’ve ended up being responsible for it. It’s great.”
Having stamped Liberal identity over one policy, Lamb then attempts to do so with another. He’s thrown his weight behind a scheme called Trading for Good, an attempt for businesses to share good practice through a new website.
“There’s nothing wrong with being recognised for doing good things. If businesses can find a way which benefits them, [and] enlightens self-interest, to benefit them as a business to help them grow, but at the same time the community is benefiting, then that seems to be a sort of virtuous circle. You then get to the point where can we use the technology to facilitate, to provide, a platform for businesses to talk about the good things they are doing. There’s a benefit for business and a benefit for the community… and it could be very powerful.”
If anything, this sounds like the Conservative vision of the Big Society in action. “That’s the Conservative badge for it, but whether its active communities or big society I approve of it” Lamb replies, keeping a firm distance from David Cameron’s one-time pet project.
With his in-tray clearly packed with policies, Lamb is not convinced that a refreshed coalition agreement – the so-called Coalition 2.0 document – is either desirable or possible.
“In the great enthusiasm of the post-election period, when we established this coalition and it was all quite dramatic because no one had expected it, people could be ambitious about the programme” Lamb argues. “When you’re in the second half of the Parliament it becomes more difficult because both parties will inevitably be thinking about the election and so forth. So it becomes more difficult to be ambitious and actually this government has done an awful lot and implementation ought to, I think, become the focus of the second half to just make sure that reforms you have undertaken work effectively.”
One government policy not yet anywhere close to implementation stage is Lords reform, with a bill unveiled in this week’s Queen’s Speech. Many Tory MPs, however, are threatening to kill it.
“I’m not surprised, perhaps disappointed” says Lamb when asked about the Tory response. “We have to remember that it was in the Conservatives’ manifesto, and in the Lib Dems manifesto, and in the Labour manifesto.”
Lamb then dares any would-be Tory modernizers to make themselves heard. “My message to some of the people on the Conservative right is, you know, the best way to demonstrate that the Conservative Party has moved on, is a modern party, is to recognise that you can’t really justify having a parliament in a democracy where you’ve people either based on accident of birth through the hereditary principle... or because of patronage. You know, this extraordinary juxtaposition between people who happen to have given political parties lots of money and membership of the House of Lords. I think if, actually, the Tories could demonstrate we’ve reformed the House of Lords, [then] that would be something fantastic for Tories to be proud of. Given the failure of Labour governments to do it, if a Tory-Lib Dem government had done it... I think they should embrace it rather than try and resist it.”
It sounds like wishful thinking, but then Lamb has already experienced – and been outspoken of – reforms which nearly split the coalition: the Health and Social Care Bill. How would he describe his feeling towards the now Act? Lamb laughs and rocks back in his chair. “Oh, what a glorious moment…” he begins, tongue firmly in cheek, before defending the reforms.
“There’s an awful lot of misleading rhetoric around the reforms. An awful lot of people have anxieties about the NHS because it’s special for many people, and this central concept that you get care when you need it regardless of your ability to pay is actually something that unites the nation. When people hear about reform they fear that that really valuable concept might be at risk, and when lots of politicians say we’re creating an American style system, a lot of people will believe it without knowing all the details of the reforms. There’s an awful lot of myth about what the reforms are doing. That central principle is absolutely still in place. I couldn’t have supported it if it wasn’t.”
It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, and while Lamb adds that “the principle of integrated care” has now been embraced and adds that his “hope is the reforms will extract better value so we can keep it [the NHS] sustainable”, it would be fair to say that he is saving his enthusiasm for his current brief.
And perhaps Lamb’s star may rise further in his party’s post-coalition era. Outspoken at times, such as during the debate on the health reforms, and yet implementing Lib Dem policies in government at the same time, Lamb appears to be well-suited should a vacancy as Lib Dem leader arise. “No, no, its’ not something that interests me. I just want to get on with my job and do it effectively” he quickly replies. “I never for one minute dreamed that I would be a minister in government. I happened to have got that chance and I just want to make the most of it.”
For Minister Lamb, that means Nick Clegg is not such a regular feature in his life. “I do see him less. It’s a bit of a problem that you don’t see colleagues as much. You’re in the department beavering away but, you know, I’m in text contact with him. I can always make contact if I need to.”
An encouraging text or two will surely have been sent to the embattled Lib Dem leader last Friday, much as they might have been to Norman Lamb in those early, jobless days of coalition government. Today, however, he needs no encouragement at all. The wait to become a government minister was longer than he might have hoped, but for this Liberal Democrat it was more than worth it.
Lamb on… the BIS ministerial car share
“I stay in a hotel across the bridge from Westminster and I then head off up to Norfolk so there’s no common journeys I’m afraid. There’s no more cars, just the one car.”
Lamb on… the omnishambles
“These things happen in government. Individual mistakes are made or whatever, but you try and focus on the bigger picture and try and get through it, try and do the right thing, try and do sensible reforms.”
Lamb on… Richard Reeves
“[He’s] an ideas person who instinctively challenges orthodoxy and that’s really very valuable in politics. In a way the Tories have had that with Steve Hilton, we’ve got to make sure that we have that in the system.”
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