If David Cameron intended to use today’s cabinet reshuffle to make a clear political statement then he has certainly been successful. In the biggest shake-up of his government to date the Prime Minister has made three very smart decisions which were much-needed ahead of next year’s election; moving potential liabilities, appointing several women to key posts and promoting Tory right-wingers.
So first of all, the liabilities. Many would point to the continuing presence of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and argue that this is proof that the Prime Minister has not been successful in purging the more toxic members of his government, but this is an unfair accusation for two major reasons. Iain Duncan Smith may embody this government’s unpopular welfare-cutting agenda, but he is also a Conservative elder statesman whose presence at the cabinet table is vital, adding a degree of gravitas and substance that many younger members of the government lack. This is a man who has led the Conservatives through their roughest period in living history and who is yet to complete his crusade against Britain’s excessive benefits culture, a fight that Mr Duncan Smith regards with an almost evangelical zeal.
Iain Duncan Smith may have clung on at the Department for Work and Pensions, but another unpopular minister hasn’t been so lucky. Michael Gove has become one of the nation’s most divisive politicians during his four-year tenure as Education Secretary, lauded by the right for taking on the teaching unions and overhauling the school curriculum yet pilloried by teachers who largely see him as an arrogant meddler driven by a narrow-minded ideology. I personally share the former view of Mr Gove, who I regard as one of the most talented brains in the cabinet, but I also believe that David Cameron was right to move him to the position of Chief Whip. With an election looming a combative figure like Gove would only alienate swing voters, whilst his new job will perfectly suit his pugnacious political style.
Gove’s successor as Education Secretary is Nicky Morgan, one of several women to have been given promotions in this reshuffle. A former corporate lawyer, Morgan entered Parliament at the last election and is seen as a close ally of Chancellor George Osborne. She will be joined in the cabinet by the new Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss and Employment Minister Esther McVey, a tough-talking Liverpudlian who has served as a minister since last year and will now attend cabinet meetings.
Despite these changes, the most important shift that this reshuffle has heralded has been the promotion of those on the right of the Conservative Party, a clear attempt by David Cameron to distance himself from the Liberal Democrats ahead of the next election. Philip Hammond’s appointment as Foreign Secretary is the most obvious sign of a shift to the right and as a result British foreign policy is now being represented by a man who is unashamed of his Euroscepticism, a move which will no doubt be popular amongst those who defected to UKIP in last month’s European elections.
Additionally, many moderate and pro-European Conservatives have been shown the door including Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve, Sir George Young and David Willetts. One Liberal Democrat source was quoted as describing this reshuffle as ‘the end of the Tory modernisation project,’ and this is a view which isn’t actually much of an exaggeration. The only exception to this rule has been the dismissal of Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, a global warming sceptic who opposed same-sex marriage and presided over the unpopular badger cull, but he has been succeeded by fellow right-winger Elizabeth Truss, a former employee of Shell who idolises Margaret Thatcher and has a record of opposing environmental red tape.
This shift to the right is to be commended in the run-up to the next general election, and David Cameron now needs to ensure that he can create a resolutely conservative platform and manifesto. Having unsuccessfully flirted with more liberal positions on crime, economic affairs and the environment, Cameron now needs to stick to the right if he wants to win in 2015. The rise of UKIP has been proof of public disillusionment with the political establishment, and today’s reshuffle is a promising move in the right direction for a Conservative Party in desperate need of regaining the trust of the electorate.
Also published on my blog: http://georgereeves1994.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/coalition-moves-to-right-ahead-of-next.html