Saturday, September 08, 2012

Was reshuffle the beginning of the end for Cameron?

Much has changed for David Cameron over the course of his seven years in charge of the Conservative Party – but there are two aspects of his leadership that have remained pretty much constant throughout that period.

The first is that he has tried to avoid reshuffles as far as possible. The second is that in his efforts to detoxify the Tory brand he has, by and large, continued to lead the party from the political centre.

Well, it had to end sometime I guess. Two and a half years after taking up residence in Downing Street, he finally summoned the nerve to move some of his more middle-ranking Cabinet members around the political chessboard.

And in so doing, he tilted the balance of power within his government decisively rightwards – and away from that fabled centre ground he has spent so long trying to cultivate.

On the face of it, this looks like pretty poor judgement on the Prime Minister’s part. To win an outright majority at the next election, his party will have to win approximately 2m more votes than it won in May 2010.

Yet history shows that every time the Conservative Party has lurched to the right in recent years – most notably under William Hague in 1999 and Iain Duncan Smith in 2003 - its support has gone down, not up.

Mr Cameron's entire political success, such as it is, has been built on persuading people that he is not like those Tory leaders of old and that his style of politics, like Tony Blair's, is about reaching out to those who are not his natural supporters.

On no issue is the change in Mr Cameron clearer than that of the environment. The man who once rode a bicycle to work to show his party’s new-found commitment to the green cause has now appointed a virtual climate change denier as environment secretary.

Sure, the changes announced on Tuesday may well bring about some superficial advances in terms of both service delivery and presentation.

On the latter score in particular, new health secretary Jeremy Hunt will surely be an improvement on the hapless Andrew Lansley who, in the words of one commentator, “could not sell gin to an alcoholic.”

But these are trifling gains when set against the central strategic error of failing to recognise that parties struggling to hold onto their support rarely solve their problems by retreating into their ideological comfort zone.

Indeed, it is tempting to believe the entire exercise was less a considered piece of political strategizing than an act of petulance designed to put the Liberal Democrats in their place following the spat over Lords reform and the boundary review.

With the forces of the Tory right now ranged even more formidably against him, there is no doubt that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will now find it even more difficult to persuade voters that he and his party are actually making a difference in government.

Meanwhile Labour leader Ed Miliband continues to make mischief by teasingly holding out the prospect of a post-Clegg, post-election Lib-Lab deal with ‘continuity SDP’ leader Vince Cable in the deputy PM role.

But inept as it may have been to drive his Coalition partners further into the hands of the enemy, even more ham-fisted was the Prime Minister’s treatment of his erstwhile transport secretary, Justine Greening.

Mr Cameron’s decision to remove her, apparently for having reaffirmed the government’s policy to rule out a third runway at Heathrow, has handed his real enemy – Boris Johnson – both a key weapon and a key ally in his campaign to replace the Tory leader.

The long-simmering battle between the two men has now moreorless descended into open warfare, with the London Mayor angrily denouncing Ms Greening’s demotion and demanding a statement ruling out a third runway for good.

Ms Greening – a former Treasury minister, take note – must now be odds-on to become Boris’s first Chancellor if he ever makes it into Number Ten – a double case of Blond(e) Ambition.

Hence a reshuffle that was supposed to relaunch Mr Cameron’s premiership has simultaneously risked alienating floating voters, angered his Coalition partners, and handed his main internal rival a big stick with which to beat him over the head.

From that perspective, it is tempting to see it as not so much a new dawn for his government, but the beginning of the end.

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