Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Meaning of the Reshuffle

In the language of cabinet government, reshuffles can be used signal a change in direction, reinvigorate an ailing government, and, of course, to get rid of recalcitrant ministers. So what did David Cameron tell the country with his first reshuffle, last week? 

The political environment in which the reshuffle too place was a hostile one for the government. Early promise of radical reform to the public services, welfare and the constitution has turned into inertia. Though progress has been made on schools and welfare reform, the Government’s health and policing reforms have run into stiff opposition from the organisations the Government is trying to change. Meanwhile, each of the government’s proposed constitutional reforms – AV, elected mayors, equal-size constituencies and Lords reform - have floundered, leaving a bitter air between the coalition partners. At the same time, disgruntled Tory backbenchers are becoming noisier, their leadership having taken a younger, more left-wing mistress, in the form of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. All of these factors are magnified by the economic downturn, leaving Cameron’s government looking frail.

Political logic states that Cameron ought to have used the reshuffle to give the government new vigour in its weakest areas. Thus, we see Andrew Landsley, the man who has mishandled the health reforms replaced with the trustworthy and likeable Jeremy Hunt, shaking off some of the mud he accumulated over his support of Newscorp’s BSkyB takeover bid in the process. The government’s growth agenda is also at the fore of the reshuffle. Justine Greening, a West London MP was replaced as Transport Secretary by Patrick McLoughlin who has no constituency interests in Heathrow. Also in are the new planning minister, Nick Boles, whose think tank recommends building on the green belt, and the new Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, a proponent of shale gas.

The reshuffle also saw concessions being made to the Tory right. Ken Clarke, the doyen of the Tory left, loses his department in favour of the fiercely euro-sceptic Chris Grayling, while Michael Fallon moves in with Vince Cable at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills. Some commentators have argued that these concessions mark the end of Cameron’s modernisation project. However, this is a misreading. The fact that Cameron embarked on his detoxification project in the first place, shows that he understands the need to appeal to a broad cross-section of society, rather than the curmudgeonly Tory right. This is even truer in the new era of coalition politics, where the Tory leader must be seen as a man who liberals can do business with.

The message of this reshuffle is subtle. The government’s headline policies of austerity and school choice remain unchanged, Osbourne and Gove staying put. While new emphasis is placed on supply side reforms of planning, regulation and infrastructure to get growth. Despite apparent concessions to the right, unnoticed changes down the pecking order are more illuminating. Within days of her appointment as a junior health minister, Anna Soubry, who has also advocated the legalisation of cannabis in the past, gave an interview in The Times supporting voluntary euthanasia. Another new minister is Helen Grant, a former member of the Labour Party. Both liberal and female, Cameron’s modernisation project is very much intact.