The Independent View: Cameron changes his choir, but the song remains the same

Reshuffles are necessary, even if they largely amount to political theatre. Few outside the Westminster bubble pay much attention, and they rarely herald wholesale policy shifts, but they are a key weapon in a Prime Minister’s arsenal in terms of placating backbenchers and stamping some authority on an administration. The most effective political operators of modern times used reshuffles masterfully; Margaret Thatcher cleared her Cabinet of ‘wets’ in 1981, instigating the most radical period of her administration.

So, how did Cameron’s first major reshuffle go? The key outcome is the failed attempt to shift Iain Duncan Smith to the Justice Department from Work and Pensions. Duncan Smith is – like Michael Gove – committed to a complete overhaul of his policy area and is determined to see it through at the helm. Importantly, he is fighting further attempts by the Treasury to slash the welfare budget further, and his staying put means he – in alliance with the Lib Dems in Cabinet – could win this battle.

Elsewhere, the Cabinet’s ‘fifth Liberal Democrat’ Ken Clarke has been ousted from the Justice Department to a Portfolio-less role, and replaced with the more authoritarian figure of Chris Grayling, setting up future conflicts with the European Court of Human Rights on issues where the Tories perceive British ‘sovereignty’ to be threatened. This promotion is part of a wider attempt by Cameron to rebalance the Conservative front bench in favour of the Tory right, with the promotion of Grant Shapps and the demotion of Baroness Warsi the most obviously crowd-pleasing elements in this regard.

Along with attempting to stave off rebellions and appeal to the right of his party, Cameron has also gone to great effort to keep his key allies in government. George Osborne, despite boos at the Paralympics and an unwelcome (for him) status as least popular Coalition Minister, was never going to lose the Treasury. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt has secured a surprise promotion to Health Secretary, though it is hard to imagine that this move – from being criticised for his connections to the Murdoch business empire to leading the implementation of an incredibly controversial overhaul of the NHS – will do his long term political prospects any good.

But what of the Lib Dem position in government? The return of David Laws, to an at present ill-defined role focused on Education, is a boost given the respect he carries throughout Westminster and Whitehall. However the crucial development for the party as a whole is that the new composition of Cabinet makes clashes between Lib Dems and Conservatives more likely: Patrick McLoughlin, newly installed at Transport, is not averse to a third runway at Heathrow, something Clegg will fight (along with Boris and West London Tory MPs). Grayling will take Justice on a rightward turn unwelcome to Lib Dems, and the removal of Lansley from Health could reopen the debate over his controversial reforms.

Overall, this reshuffle, neither ruthless nor revolutionary, will do little to affect the course of economic policy, or much government policy overall. However the new faces Cameron has introduced are likely to be less conciliatory with the Lib Dems in government, who are likely to respond in kind; more public spats and policy disputes are on the cards for the Coalition. As such then this reshuffle looks less like an attempt at the renewal of an exhausted government, instead it seems like the first move in what promises to be an extra-long 2015 election campaign.

* Daniel Wright is a Senior Associate at Cicero Group

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4 Comments

  • Lib Dems are so naive. Remember Vince Cable saying how nasty and tribal the tories are after the campaign on electoral reform. This is all so predictable. The tories have had what they want from you,and now its time to give their supporters and media some red meat. Notice how no lib dem remains at Defence and The Foreign Office.You are treated as if you are an enemy within, and must be kept away fromthat areaThis insures a much more Euro sceptic drum beating to shore up any wavering Ukip voters. And to prepare for the Trident replacement.While you lib Dems are enjoying govt the tories re planning for the next term without you.

    The next 2 years will be tory grandstanding with you either rolling overor having to block legislation that will get you attacked in the tory media. Either way the honeymoon is over and the tories are planning thei future without you.

  • Paul McKeown 6th Sep '12 - 9:23pm

    sally’s point above seems rather close to what seems likely to happen. The real news of the reshuffle is a clear step back from a coalition friendly Tory front bench to a right-wing Tory cabinet on a war footing preparing to fight the General Election. It will get more and more ugly for the remainder of this Parliament.

  • “the Cabinet’s ‘fifth Liberal Democrat’ Ken Clarke” — I think you mean sixth…

  • @Jen – We don’t count Danny Alexander anymore …

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