Liberal Democrat MP Matthew Taylor has accepted an invitation from the Prime Minister to lead a major review of land-use policy, with the aim of improving affordable housing in rural areas. Menzies Campbell welcomed the appointment, claiming it as a victory for Lib Dem policy, and as an admission of defeat by the Government:
I am delighted that Gordon Brown has once again recognised the knowledge and experience that Liberal Democrats have to offer in tackling major policy challenges that the Government has proved unable to solve.
His analysis is optimistic at best, and at worst, appallingly naïve. Gordon Brown doesn't believe he's failed, and he isn't particularly interested in taking the Lib Dems' advice, either. Ming should know - he gave the PM some pretty sound foreign policy advice last week, and was sent packing.
It doesn't take a genius to work out what Brown's up to. His announcement came at the climax of a speech this morning, where he promised a "new politics" based on consensus, and made lots of noises about the "centre ground". His political strategy revolves around defending the centre, whilst appearing open-minded, listening, and humble. This tactic is absolutely key to revitalising a 10-year-old Government which people were beginning to get thoroughly sick of. Brown will do whatever it takes to make the new image work, even if that means suffering the odd Tory or Lib Dem in his team.
Or to put it more bluntly: Brown is cynically using the Lib Dems. He's allowing them to get a little taste of power, but being careful to offer them jobs where there's already considerable cross-party consensus, and where there's little chance of them setting their own distinctive, liberal agenda. In return for pretty minor concessions, Brown gets to portray himself as a centrist and a moderate; he gets to look diplomatic and broad-minded; and he gets to tap into the tremendous public goodwill towards the Liberal Democrats.
He knows we're likely to accept whatever biscuits he chucks our way. As the third party, opposing a Government with a fair majority, we have precious little chance to change Britain. We hate being a glorified think tank, and are frustrated by the remote chances of getting into power anytime soon. We're ambitious - rightly so - and any of us would jump at the opportunity to make a tangible difference, no matter how specific the brief.
The danger is this: the rubbing-off can work both ways. As Labour can benefit from the Lib Dems' political position, and the general perception of us as a bunch of fairly decent people, they can also begin to offload their own baggage onto us.
More to the point, the eccentricities of the British electoral system put us in a uniquely awkward position. Our vote gets squeezed from both sides, and speculation about our relationships with the other parties, especially in the event of a hung parliament, can entirely derail us. Any form of collaboration with the Government, especially when they have a good majority of their own, could go very wrong indeed.
Our independence is far more important than the opportunity of improving rural housing, however worthy a cause that may be. At a time of intellectually stale politics, and a n ever-decreasing gap between the Government and the Official Opposition, our free-thinking and distinctive voice is more vital than ever. Ming needs to put his foot down. Active Lib Dems in elected positions should be working for their party, or for parliament, but not the PM.