The U.K. Cabinet Shuffle

by John O’Sullivan

David Cameron has just carried out the first half of what is a bigger-than-expected government reshuffle. He axed 13 ministers from the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet positions; he will announce their replacements shortly. It’s an unusual approach to these things, but it’s presumably intended to get the negative stories out of the way so that his promotion of bright young things will earn unqualified applause.

Bright young things? Well, that’s how the speculation is going. All the ministers going are middle-aged white guys, so that the Tory front bench will be, in the joke of the day, no country for old men. One of them, Foreign Secretary William Hague, has been moved sideways to the important position of Leader of the House (or manager of the government’s parliamentary business). But he will leave politics at next year’s election, expected sometime between March and May. Two or three others — veteran Euro-enthusiast Ken Clarke, Universities Minister David Willetts — can be believed when they say they wanted to leave. Ken will stay in Parliament in order to campaign vigorously for Britain to stay in the European Union with the greater freedom of a backbencher. David Willetts can command a more fulfilling and lucrative career outside politics. Unless you are a senior minister, Parliament is no longer such an attractive life for ambitious politicians; it mainly rubber-stamps decisions made in Brussels.

But most of the departures are forced, and most of the old men in question are in early and vigorous middle age.

Their replacements? Some mystery surrounds the identity of the next foreign secretary. He has to be either a Big Beast of the political jungle or someone capable of becoming Big and Beastly in short order. Names floated are Defense Secretary Philip Hammond and former Defense Secretary Liam Fox — both on the Tory Right, both Euroskeptics, both defense-minded, Fox more convincingly so on all counts. The rumors make a sort of sense: Either appointment would add balance to a reshuffle that so far has leant quite sharply leftwards. Environment Secretary Owen Patterson, the Right’s strongest representative in the Cabinet, is the night’s leading casualty. 

Otherwise, according to the smoke signals emerging from Downing Street, the main theme of the impending appointments will be the promotion of young, attractive, and female MPs so that the Tory front bench will look a little like the Fox News line-up. These promotions are apparently intended to win over women voters who currently favor Labour and to give the tired government a fresh face. But every silver lining has a cloud: Few of the fresh faces, in the very nature of things, are experienced politicians with the gravitas desirable in a government still struggling to cope with massive financial and economic problems.

After all, the electorate is not young and fresh-faced but disproportionately grey and elderly. And the Tories are disproportionately reliant on their support. Such voters — women among them — may not relish being told that government is a task for bright young things. 

On other questions, such as gay marriage and immigration, Cameron has shown a peculiar genius for unintentionally conveying that he has little in common with the very voters that he will need for the electoral majority that has so far eluded him. Is the reshuffle another display of this talent?

We will know better very soon. If so, though, some of the 13 ministers shown the exit today may look fresh, lively, and even ambitious on the day after the next election. Why should politics be the sole exception to the general trend of later retirement?