Friday, 18 July 2014

Shuffling the screenshots

I don't suppose there has ever been a British prime minister who has selected his cabinet purely on merit. David Lloyd George's 1916 war cabinet probably came close. Clement Attlee was quite capable of sacking a minister because he was "not up to the job" and was ruthless in replacing Ernie Bevin as foreign secretary when the latter's health declined. But in my lifetime, and in the bits of political history which I have read, cabinet construction and the filling of other government posts has been an exercise in balancing the different factions within the prime minister's party.

However, as Andreas Whittam Smith points out in yesterday's Independent, David Cameron has outdone his predecessors in cynicism. It goes further than purely placating different wings within the party but appeals directly to the backwoodsmen in the constituencies, the populist end of the media and the sections of the electorate Cameron feels he needs to appeal to. AW-S writes: "What did for Mr Gove were some pretty flimsy electoral calculations. One senior minister has been quoted as saying, 'There are half a million teachers in the UK and 300,000 teaching assistants.' These people are probably rightly assumed to have a hearty dislike of Mr Gove. And this political operative added: 'If you can get just an extra one or two extra percentage points with these groups, it [could] help you pick up two or three marginal seats.' But do the maths. Two percentage points of 800,000 is a mere 16,000 extra votes or roughly 25 votes per constituency. That is the true measure of the Prime Minister’s regard for Mr. Gove: he has been thrown overboard because a slight advantage might be gained in some marginal constituencies."

I don't know enough about the changes to the English education system to judge whether Gove was a failure as a minister. I do know that he was the first senior Conservative to offer an olive branch to LibDem activists after the party agreed to the coalition - something which was not universally popular - when he came to a LibDem local government seminar to discuss matters of mutual interest. David Willetts, who had publicly expressed his comfort at working with LibDem ministers, has also gone. Maybe his record of moderately supporting human rights has told against him. Elizabeth Truss, another junior minister and one who actually has a long-standing interest in education, would have been a natural to take over, but perhaps her past as a lively member of LDYS told against her. Instead, she will have the unenviable task of keeping farmers happy while presumably softening DEFRA's line on killing badgers. Cameron has apparently been told that the unpopularity of the education reforms will be used by Clegg in the general election campaign.  Logically, David Laws's days in the department are numbered.

The signal to the atavist Tories who want to see the end of the UK's commitment to the European Convention for Human Rights  is the sacking of Dominic Grieve, Damian Green and Kenneth Clarke and the replacement of Hague at the FO with a hardliner. The Guardian discusses that here.

Then of course there was the opportunity for the Daily Mail to put legs on display as Cameron promoted some women including (gasp!) two to the cabinet. Isn't it odd how more experienced but clearly less photogenic Conservative women have not made it into government?

The retention of Eric Pickles (the Conservatives' equivalent of Chris Rennard on the election front) and Iain Duncan Smith puts two fingers up respectively to cash-strapped English councils and people on benefits who struggle not only with below-inflation rises if not actual cuts, but also the mismanagement of Universal Credit. Indeed, a minister closely associated with cuts to disabled peoples' benefits (and incidentally has misled the House on a number of occasions, the latest here) has been given a virtual promotion.

I fear Nick Clegg's reshuffle, predicted for the autumn, may similarly be about presentation and settling old scores. I hope I am wrong.

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