Wednesday, 16 July 2014

UK Cabinet reshuffle: from one image retread to another


The news that UK Prime Minister David Cameron has reshuffled his Cabinet would usually amount to no great shakes. A few politicians' egos bruised. A few new faces. A bit of a new direction here and there. But this Prime Minister has (rightly) made such a point of not changing his top team all the time that this is the big one for the entire Parliament.

So out goes Foreign Secretary William Hague, Minister Without Portflio Kenneth Clarke, Leader of the Commons Sir George Young, Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, Energy Minister Greg Barker and Big Society Minister Nick Hurd. In come younger, fresher - and often quite right-wing - figures such as Liz Truss (above) and Priti Patel. Losing Clarke and Grieve shows anyone who cares to look that the Government is preparing to leave the European Convention on Human Rights if the Conservatives win an overall majority in the House of Commons next year - starting to ignore its Court which, as any historian will tell you, was nursed into existence by Britain in the first place, but there you are. It also signals a more sceptical position on the whole question of 'Europe', since Philip Hammond, the new Foreign Secretary, is even less enthusiastic than Mr Hague - a sensible, hard-working and above all grown-up loss to any government. The end of Barker and Hurd also tells you that the 'compassionate Conservatism' of the 2010 General Election, and its disastrous 'Invitation to Join the Government' manifesto, is well and truly buried. The Big Society? What's that again?

What to make of it all? Well, despite some attempts to compare this with Harold Macmillan's infamous 1962 'Night of the Long Knives', it wasn't a right-wing putsch comparable with Macmillan's dirigiste and 'modernising' push from the other end of the party. Nor was it such a disaster as an occasion - unlike some of the disastrous pretzel-shaped contortions that Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair got themselves into, trying to please too many people at one and the same time (and often just shrinking from the sheer nastiness of having to sack someone). There was a bit of balance on display this time, with moderates such as Nicky Morgan joining the Cabinet - replacing an Education Secretary, in Michael Gove, who had become so hated that he had even become an electoral liability in and of himself. Mr Cameron is too shrewd, and too much of a politician, to allow himself to become the prisoner of any part of his party - except, perhaps, Chancellor George Osborne's own entourage, which grows stronger and stronger by the day.

No. What's most noticeable about all this is its cynical, stripped-down focus on one thing: winning as many votes as possible in next May's General Election. Giving the impression of promoting lots of 'working mums' (while not in fact changing the gender balance at the top all that much) is pretty thin and patronising stuff, but it's the impression that counts outside Whitehall and Westminster.

The overriding political conclusion: the Conservatives are desperate to win an overall majority. They fear in their hears that it's an unachievable goal, and everything is being thrown at remaining the largest party. A quck image makeover to smooth over the party's posh, rich, male image? The impression that Britain might indeed leave the European Union, and will certainly try to leave the European Court of Human Rights - all to please voters apparently 'flirting' with the United Kingdom Independence Party? The brutal demotion of Mr Gove, hated by Liberal Democrat switchers and teachers in target seats? Check, check and check again.

Yes, it's cynical. But it might also be effective.

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