Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael has been appointed as deputy chief whip in the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government at Westminster, it was confirmed this morning.
Mr Carmichael is the first isles MP to hold a government job in the post-war era and will be responsible for ensuring that parliamentarians of both blue and yellow persuasion vote with the government on bills in the House of Commons.
He will also be the chief whip for the Liberal Democrats and he told The Shetland Times he expected it to be an “absolutely fascinating” role.
It essentially involves ensuring party discipline – a task which could be particularly challenging as it will involve trying to herd MPs as diverse as the more social democratic wing of Liberals and the Thatcherite right of the Conservative party through the same voting lobby.
“It’ll be daunting, a real challenge because there’s no rulebook for this,” said Mr Carmichael. “There is no operators’ manual for making coalition government in the House of Commons work. That’s what the chief whip’s job is about. The burden of expectation is enormous, but I find it really exciting and it does take you right into the heart of government. It is a position of enormous influence – different to the sort that I have used in the past.
“I’d like to think I’ve been given the job because I’m capable of persuading people, but there are going to be challenging days. We know that. The challenge, the opportunity is really exciting – it’s nuts and bolts politics.”
Mr Carmichael, who was re-elected last week with a record majority, said he would still be spending the same amount of time in the Orkney and Shetland constituency. The only change would be in the way he spends his four days a week at Westminster. “I’ve got a young family who are very important to me and I’m not going to miss them growing up just for the sake of being a government minister.”
Meanwhile, Mr Carmichael’s predecessor in the seat for 18 years, Jim Wallace, is understood to be set to become the UK government’s senior Scottish law officer. Mr Wallace, who was appointed to the House of Lords two and a half years ago and was heavily involved in the coalition negotiations, is expected to be appointed as Scotland’s advocate general.
Some Liberal supporters believe the party has let them down by throwing in its lot with the Tory party, but Mr Carmichael said correspondence he had received from constituents since the partnership agreement was announced has been broadly positive.
“When the coalition became a prospect, there was a pretty mixed range of views,” he said. “Some very hostile, some positive and a lot of people had a lot of questions. Since the partnership agreement was concluded on Tuesday night and since we’ve been able to demonstrate what’s in it, I’ve not had nearly as much correspondence and the correspondence that I have had has been predominantly positive and supportive.”
He played down fears that the Orkney and Shetland constituency could be expanded to include, for instance, parts of the Highlands. The Conservatives are intending to reduce the number of MPs and to make the electorate in constituencies more uniform in number which, if applied across the board, would leave the Northern Isles being combined with part of mainland Scotland.
“It would not be an acceptable solution. The Conservative policy was arithmetically identical numbers in every constituency but we have moved away from that. What it says in the partnership agreement is that constituencies will be more equal [in size]. There is still some scope where you can demonstrate the need for community or geographical reasons. I can see no reason why [the constituency would be diluted] – there is no place which you could possibly lump it in with.”