Cameron’s Cabinet Reshuffle: ‘Modernization — the Sequel’

by John O’Sullivan

David Cameron’s government reshuffle is now complete — and a blow-by-blow account (with commentary) of the new appointments is available here on the Daily Telegraph site. Before I attempt an overall judgment, let me analyze a few of the more important ones: 

1. Michael Gove has been moved downwards from education secretary to chief whip. Official sources deny this is a demotion, but unconvincingly. They even insist that he asked for the job. But it’s a demotion, and a surrender by Cameron to two hostile forces: Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, with whom Gove had clashed, and the teachers’ union which has fiercely opposed his introduction of “free schools” because they threaten the union’s monopoly powers. Don’t believe the nonsense that he can be safely moved because his reforms are now in place. They are in place legalistically, but their continuing implementation will need the strong ministerial backing they got from Gove. His successor, Nicky Morgan, seems an able woman, but education isn’t her subject (until today), and she hasn’t yet got Gove’s political status and clout in Whitehall.

2. Philip Hammond is the big winner of the reshuffle, as the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne points out, rising from Defense to foreign secretary which is one of the four major ministries in U.K. government. And this is probably not especially good news as Andrew Stuttaford notes in his earlier and suitably gloomy posting. Hammond was an efficient hatchet man at Defense, reducing the armed forces to the point where the U.S. officials have warned that Britain is a decreasingly useful ally in military terms. He did so without apparent qualms. Some commentators treat his rise as a sign that the Cabinet has moved in a Euroskeptic direction. That’s either wishful thinking on the part of Euroskeptics or scare tactics by the liberal end of the media. It rests, as Oborne notes, on a single remark. Hammond is an efficient manager of public business and an ideologically opaque politician. We will only know what he thinks if he becomes prime minister, and maybe not even then. But while his rise continues and/or until an election defeat, Hammond won’t rock the boat.

3. Michael Fallon replaces Hammond at Defense. This is the single best appointment in the reshuffle. Fallon is the man who is regularly called in to solve the problems that the other ministers have caused. His record in doing so is exemplary. But though strongly defense-minded and highly competent, he has a real problem in Defense: namely, that the problem there is the government’s policy of sacrificing defense to domestic priorities, budget stringency, and foreign aid. And neither the PM nor the chancellor will help him to solve that.

4. Those who nurse the fond hope that a Cameron Cabinet might become genuinely Euroskeptic should read the statement issued by Cameron’s new appointee to the European Commission in Brussels, Lord Hill, a businessman politician who is comparatively obscure compared with all the other names floated for the job. In this statement he informs us that one of his two main duties in Brussels will be to work to win support for the European Union among the ordinary people of Europe. Unfortunately he probably means it, and his appointment has been welcomed by the apparatchiks of business groups.

5. Liam Fox, whom some had tipped for the Foreign Office slot, was offered instead a junior FO post (minister of state) dealing with China, India, and Latin America under his rival Hammond. Given that Fox had previously been both defense secretary and a serious contender for the Tory leadership against Cameron, this was an extraordinary attempt at humiliation by the prime minister. Fox rightly turned it down with a characteristically Tory letter expressing formal gratitude for the offer but insisting that he preferred to represent his constituent’s ideas on “the economy, immigration, and Europe” with the freedom of the back benches in the run up to the election. (It amounts to a declaration of war in Tory code and is well worth reading.)

6. Fox — a Big Beast of the political jungle — now joins another such, Owen Patterson who was fired yesterday, on the back benches behind Cameron. Patterson was a strong minister of conservative views with an independent mind. At the Cabinet meeting to discuss the proposed British intervention in Syria that the Commons later rejected, Patterson was the only minister to oppose it. (Other objectors remained silent.) He was also the minister who was foremost in supporting “fracking” and blocking some of the Lib-Dem’s sillier “green” policies. He had a deep knowledge of his department’s policy and the backing of its farming constituents (including on controversial policies such as his support for the “cull” of badgers!) Both men are popular with other MPs, and though rivals on the right, will be able to work together happily to advance the same policies. They will join David Davis, a Cameron-skeptic dissident who has gone to earth mole-like in the last few years to await better times (i.e. worse times). So for the first time there is something like an alternative collective Tory leadership on the back benches. Between now and the next election, that will be only a mild problem; after a less than stellar election result, it would spell big trouble.

7. The much-ballyhooed advance of Cameron’s Cuties duly occurred. The number of women in the Cabinet has doubled from three to six — and the number entitled to attend Cabinet meetings has doubled from four to eight. Most of the women promoted are in fact well qualified and moderately experienced, but there is an odd pattern in these and other appointments: namely, that new ministers have been put in departments where their expertise is not very relevant and where they will have a steep learning curve — free-market and education expert Liz Truss, for instance, is going to the Department responsible for Agriculture. That pattern of appointments suggests a prime minister who doesn’t want people who know enough about their department’s business to challenge his policy from the stronghold of ministerial office — at least between now and the next election. Interesting.

8. Moreover, Downing Street doesn’t seem to be getting the plaudits it must have expected for the rise of the Tory woman. It was talked up too much in advance so that when it happened, it didn’t seem very exciting. Several commentators have pointed out that it was actually rather demeaning to make senior government appointments solely on the basis of sex. What no one seems to have considered is whether it’s actually legal under the government’s equalities legislation to appoint senior ministers on a sexually discriminatory basis. Maybe not! Finally, as I pointed out earlier, the rejoicing over the “cull” of the old white males might not perhaps be going down very well with the old, white, male (and indeed female) voters who make up a good half of the Tory vote.

9. And overall? Substantively, this reshuffle marks a slight shift leftwards politically and to a centrist Euro-cautious position on the EU. But since the Tory party in Parliament and the country is moving rightwards on the EU towards a willingness to leave altogether, Cameron and his Cabinet remain on the party’s left. In the PR terms so important to Downing Street, it is “Modernization — the Sequel” which makes it the re-make of a movie that bombed the first time at the box office. And there’s another movie being written on the backbenches — a cartoon thriller loosely adapted from Orwell’s Animal Farm about how the creatures in the Wild Wood invade the farm, sow rebellion among the domestic farm animals, and throw out Napoleon and the other the pigs. 

It’s called: “The Badger, the Mole, and the Sly Old Fox.”