‘A move to the right’ seems to be the overwhelming view amongst the media of this week’s government reshuffle, alongside its weekly speculation of the collapse of the coalition. Personally I think this is a bit simplistic – but the reshuffle has proved to be more interesting than I thought it might be.
Firstly, we must note what David Cameron could not do. Obviously he could not sack George Osborne. There is little doubt that Osborne has to date been a considerable failure in the post, but to abandon him now would be admitting the failure of Plan A. There is also the crucial role of taking the flak. John Major found that, after sacking his Chancellor Norman Lamont, he had lost a shield and all the subsequent criticism came directly his way. With Osborne in post, George can act as an air raid shelter for the Prime Minister. (My preference for Chancellor would be for the radical solution of giving Vince Cable the post – he is easily the best qualified candidate – but I accept that won’t happen).
No problem with William Hague in the Foreign Office – he seems born for the role – but Teresa May has been a disaster in the Home Office. From ‘cat-gate’ to borders to immigration, the blunders just go on and on. One could argue that Home Secretary is the most difficult government job, but Ms May seems completely incompetent in the role. Cynics observe she is only there because of her gender – I don’t think this is the case. However it is getting harder to believe that David Cameron genuinely thinks she is the best person for the job.
So despite two of them deserving to go, David Cameron could not move the big beasts. What about the medium sized beasts?
Reading through the changes I got the impression that Cameron felt the need (but not the desire) to placate his backbenches. As we have seen again and again, many Conservative MPs lack the maturity and the discipline to play a responsible role in backing their own leadership. They pick and choose which bits of the coalition agreement to support, and expect everyone else to keep to the agreements. (It is interesting to note that reportedly several Conservative MPs turned down a job in the whip’s office in order to be free to attack their own government!) So this is where the ‘move to the right’ comes in.
Arguably the most interesting move is Chris Grayling taking over Justice. The move of my fellow High Wycombe Royal Grammar School Old Boy to replace Ken Clarke is a clear change of direction. While some Lib Dems were unhappy with this move, I await developments with interest. I think Grayling will find it frustrating that he can talk tough but actually, due to the limitations of coalition, his position, and human rights, he can actually do very little. In the meantime, from now on, everyone we can’t deport, he will have to share the fault with Ms May.
Grayling has been in the London news lately for a scheme whereby youth unemployed will do unpaid work in return for their benefits – and this has got quite a negative response. I wonder if Cameron has ‘over-promoted’ him, both to keep him away from trouble, but also to neutralise a possible future leadership rival.
And what about Ken Clarke? Having him as a Minister without Portfolio sounds like he will be some sort of ‘consigliere’. I think Cameron appreciates the advice of his most experienced Minister but again is placating to his backbenches by removing any responsibility – a shocking and disrespectful way to treat someone of his stature.
Another stand out move is that of Jeremy Hunt to Health. Not long ago, he was on the edge of resignation, so to then get promoted is quite an achievement. One wonders if one motive of this is to start moves at making up with Murdoch with the next election in mind. How will Mr Hunt do with Health? After all the upheavals of the NHS restructuring, it may be a quiet department where he can settle down and be off the front pages for a while.
And the third Heathrow runway is back via Justine Greening’s move (and of course Boris bursting onto the scene – because it has been all of twenty minutes since he was last in the headlines). If the government were now to back the third runway it would be the biggest of all U-turns, but my guess is that the way is now open for a review to be carried out which will not report until after 2015 – a review that would not have happened without a favourable Transport Secretary.
Those are some early thoughts on the Conservative side of the reshuffle. Next, some thoughts on the Liberal Democrat reshuffle, how we can fit into all this, and how we can move forwards through the second half of this parliament.