Norfolk Lib Dem minister ready for difficult elections

Two and a half years ago it would have been difficult to find a Liberal Democrat to say a bad word about coalition government. But that was before they were in one.

Few Lib Dem MPs expected the last two years to be as tough as they were. The party's hard won support has deflated and its leader's personal ratings plummeted.

At the height of their problems, when the government reformed university tuition fees, Nick Clegg had dog faeces posted through his letter box while effigies of him were torched in the streets of Westminster.

So the question for any Lib Dem on the eve of an election would have to be; in light of the hardship, of council seats already lost and those likely lost tomorrow, is it still worth it?

For North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, a business minister, it is. But he's not under any illusion about what will happen at the ballot box.

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He said: 'Our message is that we are trying to do the right thing and it's incredibly tough. We could have taken an easy decision just to opt out and criticise.

'But actually there is a genuinely responsible thing to do when the country is in a complete mess financially. It is to take some responsibility and to try and help get through it and, actually, political stability is a priceless commodity.

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'If you look around the world where you have got instability mixed up with economic crisis you have a lethal cocktail. We now have political stability to get us through this and I don't expect to get plaudits for it, but actually it's the right thing to do and we will see it through.'

While things are not quite as hot for the Lib Dems now as they were, what is left of their popularity after tuition fees is invested in the country's economic performance and with the arrival of the double dip recession that too is now at risk.

Mr Lamb is adamant the new downturn is not the start of a deep recession and that growth will return as the government sticks to its economic plans. Excess spending and increased national debt, which he claims Labour would deliver, must be avoided.

He said: 'In this game you have a big judgement to make. Do you panic and respond to short term unpopularity and do something that economists tell you is acutely dangerous to the economy or do you act responsibly and just get through it.'

He added: 'Ultimately, doing the right thing for the economy is more important than the political cost of losing votes.'

And lose votes they will if the current opinion polls are anything to go by. At worst a YouGov poll had the Lib Dems on 8pc, compared to the Tories on 35pc and Labour on 42pc. At best an ICM poll, the one Mr Lamb quotes, has his party on 15pc. Either way, tomorrow's elections will be about damage limitation.

Mr Lamb said: 'I don't for one minute expect this to be an easy set of elections. It's a very tough environment for any party being in government at a time when you are trying to get public finances sorted out and get the country through an incredibly dangerous position.'

The party will not seek to compare its performance tomorrow with four years ago, said Mr Lamb, given that it was in 'a very different position' back in the easy pre-coalition days of 2008.

Instead it will compare performance to election results last year when in the wake of the tuition fees catastrophe the party lost control of around half its councils, nine in total.

Mr Lamb said: 'The bizarre thing with tuition fees was that we made a big compromise to facilitate the Tories. We happened in my view to have ended up with a good policy because it's very progressive. But we took the entire hit. The Tories sailed through the whole thing.

'This year the Tories are in a wholly different position, things could not be more difficult for them; the last month, the budget, everything that has happened since.

'Labour, obviously, in opposition are energised, but I think in Lib Dem/Conservative battles the dynamics will be different this year.'

Mr Lamb is buoyed by the recent by-election at North Norfolk District Council which saw the Lib Dems fight off a challenge from Conservatives to hold on to the Waterside seat.

Meanwhile he does not miss the opportunity to swipe at the mainly Tory-held Norfolk district councils; sinking his political teeth into the suggestion they may have avoided money saving service-mergers in recent years because they fear it is a step towards a county unitary authority.

He said: 'In 2009/10 we convened in Norfolk bringing councils together with the NHS, police and fire to say 'we have tough times ahead, what can we do collectively to see that money is spent to safeguard services and to reduce inefficiency and bureaucracy.

'It was to talk about combining operations in Norfolk. They all agreed that we should be pursuing this, but what has happened? Nothing.'

He added: 'People should be challenging councils and saying 'why haven't they done more?' and if it is a fear of integration that stops people reducing costs, I don't think that's justifiable or sustainable.'

The toughest question for the MP himself is perhaps around NHS reform. Before he got his ministerial role he was employed as the parliamentary assistant to Mr Clegg.

It was a position he considered resigning from at the height of the furore around the coalition's health service proposals, which were halted while ministers carried out a listening exercise to hear out criticism. There is no suggestion of resignation today.

The MP, who calls himself a passionate defender of the NHS, says he has always been a strong reformer and dismisses those who say that wanting reform is akin to wanting to destroy the NHS.

He said: 'I spoke out last year in March at the start of the listening exercise because I was horrified they were going for this big bang approach of completely restructuring commissioning in a very tight time scale. But we got changes to that through the listening exercise.'

He added: 'My message is let's try and make the reforms work; with this focus on integrated care, putting the patient first, keeping people out of hospital because you are managing to keep them healthier and in that way you have a chance of making [the NHS] sustainable.'

But if there were tough times in the last two years things could get harder after tomorrow and in the run up to 2015. Already a number of Tory backbenchers appear determined to cause problems for the coalition.

In particular they seem intent on derailing the flagship Lib Dem policy to reform the House of Lords. Last week a group of politicians headed by Norfolk peer and Tory grandee Gillian Shephard suggested current proposals be delayed.

A repeated argument is that there are issues of greater importance now than Lords reform, but Mr Lamb says changing the upper House is crucial to the current agenda of removing big money from politics; something he suggests Tories in particular should back.

He said: 'What an extraordinary position that there is resistance to the fundamental principle that we live in a democracy and those who pass our laws should be elected by the people.

'We've had so many scandals over the years, of people who end up in the House of Lords and you have this strange coincidence that they happen to have been very generous to political parties or whatever other favours that might have been made.

'You have got to get away from the rotten patronage and have a proper democracy.'

The minister says reform is an 'essential modernisation' and slams the 'powerful vested interests' blocking proposals. Meanwhile to Conservatives who have set themselves against reform he has some helpful advice.

'The best way the Conservative party, as a modern party that has come to terms with how things should be run in a modern country, is to actually demonstrate that you don't think people who are born into privilege, and there's still some hereditary peers [in the Lords], or who get there because of patronage, should have a say in the laws of our land.

'It seems to me they should embrace it. It would be a perfect demonstration that the Conservative party had moved on.'

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