The balancing act between MP and Cabinet member

FOR the first time in nearly a century the Liberal Democrat party is part of the Westminster Government, and Borders MP Michael Moore is playing a key role after being appointed Secretary of State for Scotland.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 29th September 2010, 2:54 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th September 2010, 2:54 pm

When the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Government first emerged from the inconclusive General Election in May this year, it looked as if Mr Moore would continue on the back benches, albeit on the Government rather than opposition benches.

However, just two weeks into the new Government it was all change when David Laws, the chief secretary to the Treasury was forced to resign following Daily Telegraph revelations that he had claimed expenses to pay rent to his partner. Mr Laws was replaced by Danny Alexander who moved from the post of Secretary of State for Scotland.

In a chaotic weekend Michael Moore was busy grappling with the complicated rules of a balloon game at his daughter's first birthday party when he was contacted by both Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron to ask if he would consider the role of Secretary of State for Scotland. Having said yes it was back to the party, followed by the clearing up and a fish supper.

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And it is the juxtaposition of everyday family life in the Borders and political life on the national stage that Michael is now beginning to adapt to.

Delighted to accept the office, one of the first jobs he had to do was work out how to balance the responsibility of the Scottish Office with the equally important job of being a constituency MP which he has been doing for 13 years, first as MP for Tweeddale, Ettrick & Lauderdale and since 2005 as MP for Roxburgh, Berwickshire and Selkirk.

"One of the first things that I talked about to my team at the Scottish Office was the absolute need for me to fulfull my responsibility as MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk," said Michael, who took the decision earlier this month to stand down as deputy leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats to give him more time for both constituents and Scottish Office demands.

"It's a very big area. I'm the first Secretary of State for 14/15 years to represent a large rural seat, the last few, Murphy, Darling, Reid, were all from the central belt. My priority since my appointment has been to end the historic focus on the central belt, which has often left rural areas like the Borders behind.

"The first thing I determined is that my Fridays, which have always been my constituency day, are still very firmly that.

"I'm still living in the Borders and still on balance spend four nights at home and three nights away, so being at home makes local activities manageable.

"On Mondays I would have done some stuff in the constituency before going to London. Now it tends to be up in Edinburgh for meetings, off to London and then home by Thursday evening.

"I did a full rural constituency advice surgery tour over the summer and found that there were higher expectations that you can get things sorted out.

"People are still coming to me with the same range of issues as before: Child Support Agency, housing, community issues such as Reston station."

And Borders folk are probably right in having higher expectations of their MP since he became a member of the Westminster Cabinet. As Secretary of State Michael is meeting the right people who can help with constituency matters - eg he has a meeting scheduled with Virgin Trains about Reston station after meeting company representatives elsewhere.

"One of the things that's interesting is that I'm meeting a lot of people with Scottish wide responsibilities that I can give the Border angle to, for instance I had a chance meeting with someone from BT about poor broadband service provision in parts of Berwickshire."

The trials and tribuations of Berwickshire's fishermen, plus the next phase of development in Eyemouth were also a key part of recent discussion with Scottish Fishermen's Association - every opportunity to put forward the region's case is taken.

Speaking about reaction to the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, referred to in some elements of the national press as the ConDem coalition, Michael was diplomatic in responding to opposition party attacks: "There's always a lively debate in politics and it has an extra sharpness now.

"Financially the moment of truth has come to tackle the deficit. Decisions are having to be made about the budget.

"We are caught up in the most difficult decisions that the Government has had to make in decades."

The Liberal Democrat manifesto includes a better deal for pensioners and a new starting point for paying tax and these are still very much on the Government agenda.

"But the interesting debates I have had all involved the very difficult decisions we are going to have to make about public spending and the choice is whether we cut more or raise tax," Michael explained.

One area of spending review that is causing particular concern in Scotland is defence, and Michael has been involved in many meetings in recent weeks and has visited most of the Scottish military bases that could potentially be affected. Major changes are inevitable but Michael is at the forefront of the fight to make the strategic and economic case for retaining all Scottish naval bases and shipyards, plus air bases plus army bases.

It is now over ten years since devolution which heralded the start of the Scottish Parliament and a new Bill is about to be introduced at Westminster this autumn, bringing more fiscal responsibility to the Scottish Parliament and making further changes to the relationship between the two parliaments.

Michael is very much the key player in introducing the first major changes to the Scotland Act and he is working closely with Treasury colleagues and other offices in Whitehall to carry out many of the recommendations made in the Calman Commission report.

The Commission was set up last year "To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to serve the people of Scotland better, improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament, and continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom."

An all-party body they finally came up with 63 recommendations to improve relations between the two Parliaments and to strengthen the Scottish Parliament's financial accountability - introducing a new Scottish rate of income tax, devolving responsibility for Stamp Duty Land Tax, Aggregates Levy, Landfill Taxes and Air Passenger Duty to the Scottish Parliament.

Many of the recommendations involve changes to procedural matters to make communication between London and Edinburgh more efficient. And one line of communication that has been opened up immediately since the coalition Government took over is that Michael is the first Secretary of State for Scotland to appear before a Scottish Parliament committee.

He was invited to the Scottish Parliament's Committee of Conveners in July to report on the Queen's Speech (one of the Calman recommendations) and has agreed, if invited to do so, to make it an annual event. His first appearance proved useful; a lot of ground was covered by both sides and the importance of this recommendation has already been proven.

When Parliament reconvenes after its summer recess and party conference season, it is expected that the new Bill to up-date the Scotland Act will be on the agenda and with all-party agreement on the majority of the Calman Commission recommendations Michael will be leading the way in this large scale re-visiting of devolution.

As a leading player in the new coalition Government, Michael's job has changed beyond all recognition but his focus remains very much on representing the people who elected him as their MP.

"Being an MP is very much my job and I have additional responsibility and my challenge is to see that one doesn't trip up the other," said Michael who has nothing but praise for the way in which his constituency staff have risen to the challenge, dealing with correspondence from constituents as quickly as possible.

"My team are working their socks off. There is a lot of stuff coming in and we are doing our best to make sure we deal with it all," said Michael.