Allan Massie: Shifting ministers fails to move the public
DAVID Cameron is preparing for a reshuffle, but how much impact will it really have?
GOvernment reshuffles agitate Westminster, for obvious reasons. Most of the world beyond Westminster doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss, for obvious reasons. Even discounting the surprisingly large number of people who at any given time don’t know who is prime minister – or at least say they don’t – the probability is that even reasonably well-informed people could name only a handful of Cabinet ministers, that fewer could say which department they head, and far fewer could tell you who was minister of state at this office or under-secretary at that one. This is natural enough, and so, despite all the talk of refreshing or reinvigorating the government, you might think that, as far as the public is concerned, prime ministers might as well leave things alone.
But of course they don’t, and there are good reasons for the occasional game of ministerial musical chairs. First, there is the occasional minister who has proved a dud. Clement Attlee had a short way with such ones. “Not up to it”, he laconically replied to a minister who asked him why he had been sacked. Second, a minister may simply be exhausted. Third, the occasional carrot must be held out to backbenchers. If ambitious ones believe that there is no chance of getting a ministerial job, they may become restive and rebellious. The same applies to junior ministers eager to climb up the ladder. So at some point in every government the prime minister feels the need to shuffle the cards and deal a new hand.
David Cameron has so far been a reluctant reshuffler. Tony Blair started out with the intention of leaving at least senior Cabinet ministers in position. This makes good sense, superficially anyway. The minister has time to master the business of his department. Yet there is a danger of which prime ministers become aware. Far from mastering his department, the minister may become its prisoner, in thrall to his civil servants. Even today, despite the infiltration of special advisers who are supposed to offer an alternative to the civil service view, Sir Humphrey will often corral and control a minister.
In any case, Blair soon became a compulsive reshuffler, almost as compulsive as Harold Wilson. One change was beyond him. Gordon Brown at the Treasury was not for moving. Otherwise it was all change whenever the music stopped. Anyone seeking a challenging special subject for Mastermind might choose the number of Cabinet posts, and his duration in them, that John Reid held in the Blair governments.
David Cameron is about to embark on his first voluntary reshuffle (there has already been a small one when Liam Fox had to resign). All prime ministers have less than absolute freedom when it comes to a shuffle. Blair couldn’t sack or move Brown, and it is sometimes thought safer to keep an uncongenial colleague in the Cabinet than to let him go to vent his spleen from the back benches. Cameron’s freedom is even more limited, because he heads a coalition. Liberal Democrat ministers can only be moved or dismissed with the approval of the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg; and if one goes, another Lib Dem must come in.
Some would like to see a change at the Treasury, but this won’t happen. Prime ministers and chancellors often fall out, or drift apart, as was the case with Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson, but Cameron and George Osborne are still close. More importantly, to move Osborne now would be seen as an admission that the government’s fiscal and economic policy was failing – and if that admission were to be made, what would be left? My guess is that Cameron and Osborne are bound together, to sink or swim.
The anti-European Tory Right longs to see the departure of Ken Clarke, Justice Minister, pro-European, held by them to be soft on crime, and sometimes described by them as the sixth Liberal Democrat in the Cabinet. But, apart from the fact that Clarke is engaged in a programme of legal reforms, getting rid of him would suggest that Cameron was now the prisoner of the anti-European Right; this would dismay moderate and liberal-minded Tories who make up a higher proportion of the Conservative vote than activists seem to realise.
One former Tory MP, the journalist Paul Goodman, has proposed an intricate series of dance moves. Vince Cable should replace Theresa May at the Home Office, and David Laws, “as close to being a Conservative as the Lib Dems can produce”, should return to the front bench in Cable’s job as Business Secretary. Theresa May should then take over from William Hague as Foreign Secretary, allowing Hague to become party chairman with the brief to revive Tory fortunes in his native Yorkshire and other parts of the North and Midlands.
This sounds too complicated a dance. Moreover, one has the impression that Hague rather relishes his present role. Nevertheless, Goodman has connections in high places, and one shouldn’t rule out what may be either an inspired leak, or perhaps a bit of kite-flying to see how the wind is blowing.
Actually, the wind may well be blowing hot air only, and the likelihood is that all the “Big Beasts” will remain where they are, and that the reshuffle will be confined to less conspicuous ministers, with a handful of backbenchers from the 2010 intake getting their first step on the ladder in junior posts. And few except their family, friends and colleagues will notice. So the reshuffle will make no difference to the government’s fortunes.
There is, however, one change which is desirable. George Osborne also chairs the Cabinet committee responsible for negotiations with the Scottish Government about the terms and date of the independence referendum. It would be better if this post was held by a Scot – and preferably one who represents a Scottish constituency, either the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore, or the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, Danny Alexander. The SNP would surely prefer Osborne to continue to chair this committee, which is a good reason why he shouldn’t.
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