A Devon Liberal Democrat MP has lost his role as Armed Forces Minister to pave the way for a party colleague to assume the Government's farming brief.
Nick Harvey, North Devon's MP, was yesterday stripped of his Ministry of Defence role by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, leaving his party without a presence in the department.
The unexpected move, among a series of dramatic ministerial reshuffles announced yesterday, prompted claims the party is shifting its opposition to a replacement for the Trident nuclear deterrent – a major point of difference with the Tories.
Last night, Mr Harvey, widely-respected as a minister, admitted his demotion was a strategic "trade" to get a fellow Lib Dem into another department.
It later emerged Somerton and Frome Lib Dem MP David Heath has been named the new Farming Minister, giving the Westcountry a major voice in agriculture. Incumbent Jim Paice, a Tory, was dumped to make way. The Environment Department – Defra – had no-one from the junior coalition party in a ministerial post.
Mr Harvey, minister since 2010 and Lib Dem defence spokesman in Opposition, said: "Nick Clegg made it clear that the decision was not a reflection on my performance in the job, which he said was widely regarded as having been excellent, but rather a strategic political decision to 'trade' this post for one in another government department."
Andrew Robathan, a Conservative MP, was named as his replacement.
Former Devon Lib Dem MP and ex-Royal Marine Lord John Burnett criticised his party leader, saying Mr Harvey is well-respected by troops and generals and colleagues in Parliament.
The series of swingeing defence cuts have hit the Westcountry, including the Chivenor Naval base in Mr Harvey's constituency. The peer said: "I think Nick Clegg has made a catastrophic error of judgement. I simply do not understand this lamentable decision. This is how he repays loyalty, dedication and ability."
Meanwhile, Yeovil Lib Dem MP David Laws, who resigned from the Cabinet in 2010 amid a scandal over his expenses, sealed his comeback as he was named a junior Education Minister and a Cabinet Office Minister.
"I am immensely grateful to all those constituents who have given me their support and encouragement over the past two-and-half years," he said. "I will do all I can to return that confidence."
Mr Laws will also assume Mr Harvey's role in overseeing a review of Trident. While Conservatives want full renewal of the UK's fleet of four Vanguard-class submarines, Lib Dems want cheaper alternatives to reflect the end of Cold War threats. In any case, the Trident successor's future will have an impact on nuclear work at Devonport dockyard.
Jeremy Browne, Lib Dem MP for Taunton Deane, was moved from the Foreign Office to the Home Office, giving him a major role in one of the biggest departments.
The Conservative Party last night also confirmed that Hugo Swire, Conservative MP for East Devon, will move from the Northern Ireland Office to become minister of state at the Foreign Office.
An MP fiercely opposed to the ban on hunting with dogs is to take command of the Government department in charge of the countryside.
Owen Paterson will take over as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) from Caroline Spelman, leaving his post as Northern Ireland Secretary.
Mr Paterson, MP for rural North Shropshire, described the Hunting Act passing into law in 2004 as a "sad day for the House of Commons" and was a fierce advocate of a badger cull in opposition – a policy since adopted by the coalition Government. The former Defra shadow minister is also a critic of onshore wind farms.