By Simon Usherwood
Tuesday’s Cabinet reshuffle by David Cameron has been trailed for some time now, but until the last moment it was not expected to be of the scale it has assumed. As a result, it sets up the government to present a rather different complexion in the run-up to the general election.
The key factor in the scope of the reshuffle looks to have been William Hague’s decision to step down as Foreign Secretary. For some, this was the result of he’s being broken/bored by the work, but to have seen him last week pushing hard on ending sexual violence in conflict should give the lie to that. The reasons remain rather unclear for now, but the consequence is that the Foreign Office is losing one of its staunchest defenders of recent decades: Philip Hammond might be an operator, but he doesn’t have the same personal attachment to diplomacy that Hague has shown over the past four years.
If Hague walked, then Michael Gove certainly didn’t. His removal from Education to become Chief Whip isn’t a vote of confidence in either the man or his project for school reform: very little is coming through the legislative process in the next nine months that will require much arm-twisting. Cameron’s decision is very odd, given the extent to which he has backed Gove until now, when he could have cut his losses much earlier. Here the judgement might have been that things have moved far enough down the line that they can’t be reversed and that Gove is better moved out now to start building a profile in another area while Nicky Morgan picks up the metaphorical pieces.
Alongside these two big changes, a third individual was also pushed into the limelight: Lord Hill of Oareford. Jonathan Hill’s name is one which has been on the lips of almost no-one until today, when he was nominated as the British member of the European Commission. A Tory party insider, Hill has been Leader of the Lords since last year, providing with the skills of political management and coalition-building that Cameron argues will be essential in Brussels. His nomination also has the propitious consequence that there will be no need for the by-election that use of an MP would have entailed.
Beyond these three big changes, the rest of the reshuffle is mainly one of filling in the gaps created and rewarding allies (see the Institute of Government’s very useful blog for more). Thus several of the 2010 intake get into the Cabinet, such as Liz Truss, Stephen Crabb, and Priti Patel.
But what is the intent behind all of this?
There are two possible readings of this, one more optimistic than the other.
The positive interpretation is that this is part two of Cameron’s strategy, building on the radical phase needed to pull the UK up from the depths of the recession and forming a new team to create a positive shine to that work in anticipation for the general election. This is certainly Cameron’s own spin, trying to create a narrative that the worst is behind us and the strength of the economic recovery means we can afford not to think too hard about the difficulty that has passed.
Part of that strategy is to make a Cabinet that is more resistant to Labour attacks. One of the more-remarked-upon aspects has been the promotion/retention of women, an obvious rejoinder to the recent months of criticism from the Opposition. Likewise, Gove’s removal has at least some aspect of depriving Labour of one of their favourite whipping boys.
However, if we are feeling less generous, then we might look at things rather differently. Hague’s departure might seem less surprising if we consider that he might expect to be out of the Foreign Office next May in any case, on the back of a Tory defeat.
This is really the unspoken sub-text: that we give party loyalists some time in the political sun because it’s unlikely to last very long. Despite the tightening of the opinion polls in recent months (see the excellent Polling Observatory posts), the Conservatives still look like being out of power in May, even as a coalition partner. That puts a big disincentive on laying long-term plans and refocuses attention on making the most of the remainder of this Parliament.
It’s easy to forget in all of this that the Tories are still in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats and that whatever electoral nemesis they face next year, that still lies in the future. Hence Cameron still has to temper the desires and pressures of his party to fit the coalition agreement, not least in his allocation of government posts.
All of this has echoes of 1992, when John Major looked set to lose, only to scrap through for another five years. Back then, there was a distinct sense that the foot had come off the gas and that the long period of Tory government was coming to an end. It was to be the questions over the electability of Labour that finally proved more consequential in the vote.
Cameron might not have had the long period in power that Major did, but he does have an Opposition that has struggled to impress. Even with the more fractured arithmetic of a party political system with UKIP, Tory victory is not impossible. That raises the potential danger that Cameron might pull it all off next year and then have to follow through.
If that did happen, then Europe is going to be the big fight, which will take up almost all his energies until 2017. Whether Hammond in the Foreign Commonwealth Office and Hill in Brussels will still look like good choices then remains to be seen.
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Image credit: Prime Minister visits Russia, by Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Flickr). Open Government License v1.0 via Wikimedia Commons