Saturday, August 06, 2011

What was missing about the political summer of 2011?

As anyone who has ever worked at Westminster for any length of time will know, there are certain fixed points in the parliamentary calendar which do much to shape the narrative of the political year.

Some of these are pretty well immovable feasts: the Budget, for instance, is almost always in March, the local elections in May, the party conferences in the autumn and the Queen's Speech in November.

But 2011 will go down as different from most other years in one significant respect: there was no summer Cabinet reshuffle.

Perhaps it was just the fact that everybody was too busy talking about phone-hacking, but the usual crescendo of summer speculation about who's heading up and down the greasy pole never even got going.

Tony Blair was addicted to reshuffles, although over the course of ten years as Prime Minister he never managed to become very good at them

One of my most abiding memories of my time in the Lobby was the chaotic Number Ten briefing after the 2003 reshuffle which followed the then Darlington MP Alan Milburn's surprise resignation as health secretary.

Initially we were told that the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office had been abolished and become part of the newly-created Department for Constitutional Affairs under Lord Falconer .

Half an hour later, after hasty consultations with shocked officials from the departments in question, we were told, er, no, that was not quite right after all.

Mr Blair didn't like round pegs in round holes. He was one of those leaders - you get them in all walks of life – who feel the need to move people around every couple of years or so lest they get too comfortable in the jobs they are in.

By contrast, David Cameron is said to hate reshuffles, and that certainly seems to be borne out by the relatively stable composition of his frontbench team in both opposition and government.

Unlike Mr Blair, he seems to make a virtue of stability and allowing ministers to get to know their briefs.

Usually this is a good thing – but sometimes, as in the case of health secretary Andrew Lansley and his NHS reforms, they can become so obsessed with their particular field of expertise they become blind to the wider political picture.

Mr Cameron, though, may yet be forced to do the thing he seemingly most hates, even if the traditional time of the year for reshuffles has now passed.

At the end of last month, a file was handed by Essex Police to the Crown Prosecution Service following an investigation into whether the energy secretary, Chris Huhne, persuaded someone else to take speeding penalty points for him.

Downing Street was said to be ready for Mr Huhne to walk, but the one-time Lib Dem leadership contender is not short of chutzpah, and he is still gambling that the investigation will come to nothing.

Everyone, however, privately acknowledges that if he is charged, he will be forced to stand down, at the very least temporarily, while he attempts to clear his name through the courts.

What would happen then? Under the terms of the Coalition agreement, Mr Huhne would have to be replaced in the Cabinet by another Lib Dem, though not necessarily in the same role.

Many in both coalition parties would like to see the former Lib Dem Treasury minister David Laws brought back into the Cabinet fold.

But the consensus is that it is still too soon for the ex-minister forced to resign in disgrace after just 17 days last summer after revelations about his expenses.

Safer but duller choices would be either the foreign affairs minister Ed Davey or Nick Clegg's chief adviser, Norman Lamb.

Mr Cameron could of course take the opportunity for a wider shake-up. Why, for instance, leave the highly-talented Philip Hammond mouldering at transport, or telegenic Jeremy Hunt in the relative backwater of culture, media and sport?

But all the indications, though, are that he will seek to limit the number of changes to the bare minimum.

During the Major-Blair years, the summer reshuffle, and the months of speculation that invariably preceded it, became as much a part of the political year as all those other fixed points in the calendar.

Under Mr Cameron, it looks like becoming no more than a distant memory.

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1 comment:

James Higham said...

But 2011 will go down as different from most other years in one significant respect: there was no summer Cabinet reshuffle.

Come to think of it, Paul, that was uncanny. Too many riots and other matters plus the EU implosion.