UK Politics

What must Hughes do for the Lib Dems?

Simon Hughes

Veteran Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes has been elected as the party's deputy leader. The BBC's Collette McBeth looks at the task ahead.

The deputy leadership of the Liberal Democrats is not normally a job that attracts a huge amount of attention.

But in political terms, at least, these are not normal times.

With Nick Clegg ensconced in the Cabinet Office as deputy prime minister, the role of his party deputy will take on a new importance.

So Simon Hughes, the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark and an MP for 27 years, could have quite a job on his hands.

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, said: "It's not just a case of it being more important.

"It's going to be very different. What's not entirely clear to anyone is how the role will develop in these changed times. It's very much uncharted territory."

It will certainly be a very different role from the one his predecessor, Vince Cable, held for four years.

Mr Cable was a fierce critic of many Labour government policies.

But criticism flows more easily when your party is in opposition. It is a harder task to pull it off when it is sharing power.

In Mr Hughes's own words, he is on the radical left wing of the Lib Dems.

He also believes that in his new role he can be the "guardian of the soul of the party".

'More spikey'

That will mean that, whereas Nick Clegg is very much part of the coalition, Mr Hughes will position himself as its "critical friend".

Or as one source said: "The job of the deputy will be to say the things Nick Clegg wants to say but can't. He'll have the freedom to be more spikey."

So Mr Hughes will want to defend his party's independence and, in his own words, prove to the public that the Liberal Democrats have not sold out.

One of the ways he believes that can happen is to push for a team of Lib Dem "shadows" in the Commons.

How that would work in practice is yet to be thrashed out. But the idea is that, on top of those Lib Dems serving in government, a shadow secretary of state would be appointed from the party's backbenches in the five departments where there are no Lib Dem ministers.

Even in departments where there are Lib Dems, a lead spokesperson would be appointed. It is all about ensuring the party has a voice outside coalition.

The party needs to develop its own policy alongside those of the coalition.

It is on these that it will campaign in the next general election.

The Lib Dems will have to stand out from their coalition partners and also take the fight to Labour.

In these interesting times, Mr Hughes has just landed himself a rather interesting job.

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