Saturday, October 15, 2011

A tale of two reshuffles

A couple of months back, I wrote a column highlighting the absence this year of one of the hitherto regular features of the political scene – the summer Cabinet reshuffle.

Partly this could be attributed to David Cameron’s hatred of them. He had made clear he saw no purpose in shifting ministers around every 12 months, and wanted his team to stay in place for the duration of the five-year Parliament.

But while the Prime Minister should doubtless be applauded for such good intentions, politicians are always ultimately at the mercy of events.

And with the departure of Dr Liam Fox from the government yesterday afternoon after a week or more of damaging allegations about his links to unofficial adviser Adam Werrity, Mr Cameron has been forced to have a reshuffle after all – an Indian summer reshuffle, if you like.

Alastair Campbell famously said that if a story about a beleaguered minister ran for more than ten days it constituted a genuine crisis management situation rather than a mere media frenzy, and Dr Fox had already passed this point.

Whether or not he is found to have breached the ministerial code – Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell has yet to reveal his findings – the former defence secretary’s behaviour has been extraordinary by any standards.

I would be the last person to condemn politicians for needing to let off steam occasionally, but most of our elected representatives manage to do that without adding a day onto an official overseas trip in order to stage a boozy party with their mates in Dubai.

But if that element of the story was somewhat comical, more serious was the suggestion that Dr Fox had created a parallel foreign policy operation, with the help of ‘advisers’ paid for by a shady bunch of right-wing ideologues.

Dr Fox owed his position in the Cabinet to having come a good third in the 2005 Tory leadership contest, and to his status as the unofficial leader of the ‘traditionalist’ Tory right.

It partially explains why, even allowing for his dislike of reshuffles, Mr Cameron appears to have fought unusually hard to retain the defence secretary, long after his departure had begun to assume a certain inevitability.

It is hard enough for Mr Cameron trying to hold together the coalition with the Liberal Democrats, while also trying to hold together the coalition of left and right, Europhiles and Eurosceptics, social liberals and traditionalists within his own party.

His appointment of transport secretary Philip Hammond as Dr Fox’s successor last night will have been calibrated not to upset that delicate balance, as well as keep the changes in government to a minimum.

In contrast to the Prime Minister, Labour leader Ed Miliband was so keen to have a reshuffle this year that he changed his party’s rules in order to do it.

The changes he announced last Friday by and large succeeded for the simple reason it did what Tony Blair’s reshuffles seldom did - and put round pegs in round holes.

So, for instance, former health secretary Andy Burnham, who had looked lost for ideas at education, moves back to cover his old brief, while the former schools minister Stephen Twigg, who returned to the Commons last year after losing his seat in 2005, takes on the education portfolio.

I am less optimistic about the much-hyped Chuka Umunna’s elevation to the role of Shadow Business Secretary up against Vince Cable, a man more than twice his age and with ten times his knowledge of the business world.

Nevertheless, focusing his changes on these three key policy areas makes good sense for Mr Miliband, as they are the areas where the opposition most needs to make political headway over the coming months.

The government may have won a narrow victory in the Lords this week over its controversial health reforms, but the issue remains a toxic one for the coalition and a potential election-loser for Mr Cameron.

For now, however, Labour will be content to have secured the unexpected scalp of a man who two weeks ago seemed secure in his role as one of the most senior ministers in the government.

How many more unwanted reshuffles will Mr Cameron be forced to perform before he comes to realise they are simply part of the territory.

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