Nick Clegg brushes aside critics

Martyn Oates
Political editor, South West

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionNick Clegg has responded to criticism from members of his own party

Nick Clegg was in bullish form when I spoke to him about his latest choice of ministers and the searing criticism he has been receiving from some members of his own party.

At the end of our brief exchange I was left in no doubt as to who wears the trousers when it comes to Liberal Democrat ministerial appointments.

But the rationale behind his latest move in the game of departmental chess still eludes me.

South West voices

Before this month's reshuffle he had a minister (North Devon's Nick Harvey) at the MOD overseeing a review into future alternatives to the Trident nuclear missile system.

image captionDavid Heath is the new Farming Minister at DEFRA

The Lib Dems' quest for an alternative to Trident stands in stark contrast to Conservative enthusiasm for like-for-like replacement.

They now have nobody with full-time responsibility for this (presumably) important brief.

In the wake of the reshuffle there was talk of David Laws taking on the Trident review in addition to his new responsibilities at Education.

Then it was announced that Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, will add this to his day job of helping George Osborne salvage the economy.

Meanwhile - in exchange for Nick Harvey at Defence - Mr Clegg now has a Farming Minister - Somerton and Frome's David Heath - at DEFRA.

In part, he says, this provides a Lib Dem ministerial voice for the rural South West.

Answering the critics

But the fact remains that the Liberal Democrats are virtually at one with the Conservatives on most aspects of rural policy.

Even the badger cull was an election commitment for both parties.

Given that - as Mr Clegg points out here - he only has a limited number of ministerial jobs in his gift, the previous absence of a DEFRA minister wasn't a big deal even for rurally-minded Lib Dems.

Addressing a rally at the Liberal Democrat Conference on Saturday, the Deputy Prime Minister insisted he was "more determined than ever" to find the right alternative to a "monumentally expensive" like-for-like replacement of Trident.

Conference delegates are also being wooed with new left-of-centre policy ideas calculated to reassure the jitters of the rank and file - and distance the party from the Conservatives.

However, Mr Clegg was less than conciliatory to his critics within the party when I spoke to him...