Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bye bye Dave, hello Theresa. Some reshuffle reflections

Originally posted on my Facebook page on the day after David Cameron stepped down as PM and Theresa May took the carving knife to his Cabinet.

1. David Cameron remains a class act. Of course, he had no alternative but to step down after accidentally leading us out of the EU, but nothing in his six-year tenure of the office of Prime Minister became him like the leaving of it. I never voted for the man, and probably never would have done, but he even had me in tears during his leaving speech outside Number Ten, with his references to his family followed by the group hug on the doorstep. It was a reminder that behind all the political drama of recent weeks was a very human story about a family suddenly forced to leave their "lovely" home - in little Florence's case, the only one she had ever known.

2. It is good to see that, despite the post-factual, "we've had enough of experts" spasm of the Brexit vote, experience remains a prized commodity in British politics and that the most experienced candidate for the Conservative leadership eventually won the day. Three of the last four Prime Ministers acceded to the top job in their 40s. Theresa May is 59 and I, for one, find it oddly reassuring that once again we have a Prime Minister and Chancellor who are both older than I am.

3. George Osborne and Michael Gove finally have their just reward for their years of plotting and backstabbing. Theirs is a deeply unpleasant little clique and it is completely understandable that Mrs May saw no place for it in her government. I just hope she doesn't come to regret her failure to abide by Michael Corleone's famous dictum - "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." Gove and Osborne will be dangerous enemies in the years to come.

4. In terms of other Cabinet departures, I am particularly pleased to see the back of John Whittingdale and Nicky Morgan. Whittingdale's constant efforts to undermine the BBC and attempts to privatise Channel 4 posed an existential threat to two great journalistic and cultural institutions. Similarly Morgan's attempt to force academisation on schools would have wrecked primary education in this country and will hopefully now be consigned to that bit of St James' Park where they can't quite get the mower.

5. Although there have been some well-deserved promotions - Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, James Brokenshire - Mrs May has at times today appeared to value loyalty over ability. There is probably a reason why Damian Green and David Lidington reached the age of 60 without previously achieving Cabinet office. Similarly the appointment of her former Home Office junior Karen Bradley to the culture gig had a whiff of the old chumocracy about it.

6. There are some obvious hospital passes for the Brexiteers Mrs May has promoted. Andrea Leadsom at DEFRA gets the job of explaining to the farmers that Brexit won't leave them better off and that the UK won't be able to pick up all the EU farm subsidies they have enjoyed for so many years. Priti Patel at International Development gets to run a department which, three years ago, she suggested should be abolished.

7. In any reshuffle there is always one bit that doesn't go to plan and this year it concerned Jeremy Hunt. It seems clear he was on his way out of the Department of Health only for rumours of his demise to prove greatly exaggerated. My guess is that Mrs May had someone else in mind for the job and that someone turned it down. Either way an opportunity has been missed to detoxify the junior doctors' dispute by moving a man who has become a hate figure.

8. In terms of reorganising Whitehall departments, Mrs May has made a good start but should have gone further. The Cabinet is far too big and ideally needs to be slimmed down to about 12-15 members. Liam Fox's new international trade role and Priti Patel's international development role should ultimately be combined, as Ms Patel has herself previously suggested. Separate Cabinet ministers for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local government are a hangover from the days when everything was run from Whitehall, and should surely be replaced by a single Department for Devolution - although I could understand if Mrs May decided that was one for another day.

9. Looking at the bigger picture, the May government's success or failure will ultimately depend on how it responds to the three key post-Brexit challenges: stablising the economy, refashoning Britain's role in Europe and the world, and preserving the Union. In terms of the first, Philip Hammond is exactly the kind of solid, dependable figure who will reassure the markets and has already announced a welcome shift away from Osbornomics by postponing the deficit reduction target indefinitely. In terms of the second, David Davis is absolutely the right person to negotiate our departure from the EU, and if anyone can refashion Britain's role in the wider world, Boris can.

10. Finally, the Union. Those who know me well know that my principal reason for voting Remain on 23 June was the fear that a Leave vote would break up the UK, and if Mrs May's words outside Number Ten on Wednesday and her decision to visit Scotland today are anything to go by, she shares that concern. The Union is indeed a precious, precious bond, but one which has been stretched to breaking point over the course of the Cameron years. If Mrs May can repair those bonds, and manage not to go down in history as the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I think that will be quite some achievement.