John McTernan: Tories are fresh out of good ideas

William Hague and Angelina Jolie called for an end to sexual violence as a weapon of war. His support was criticised. Picture: Getty
William Hague and Angelina Jolie called for an end to sexual violence as a weapon of war. His support was criticised. Picture: Getty
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Dubbed ‘Night of the Wrong Knives’, the Cabinet reshuffle is a blatant attempt to appeal to women voters, writes John McTernan

David Cameron’s reshuffle was swiftly and caustically dubbed the “Night of the Wrong Knives” by commentator Iain Dale. This reflected a widespread surprise at some of the demotions and sackings. It is worth reflecting just how shocking they were. William Hague is one of the handful of politicians one would cross the road to hear speak – he is a clever, witty and eloquent politician. Michael Gove is one of the few ministers with a recognisable agenda. Both were pushed out. What does it all mean?

Well, first we were warned in advance that is was a reshuffle all about optics. It was widely briefed that there would be a big push to get rid of “male, pale and stale” ministers and to replace them with women. This was an extraordinary idea, but was even more amazing in execution. The Daily Mail have been criticised for their double-paged spread of the new women in the Cabinet, and attending Cabinet. Their outfits – right down to their handbags and shoes – were scrutinised and found to be flawed in various ways. The newspaper has received a storm of protest but the blame lies firmly in No 10 – they were the ones who decided that how you looked rather than how you worked determined your merit for promotion.

Just think a little about the fundamental premise of this part of the reshuffle – it is that women voters are airheads. Here’s the thought process. Cameron and Osborne spot that there is a gender gap. They receive polling that says women don’t like their policies. They decide not to change course, but instead appoint some women to Cabinet. That’ll do the trick – after all those women are easily distracted, aren’t they? Condescending isn’t even the word for it.

The second obvious strand in the reshuffle is a circling of the wagons. There’s a thorough attempt to dampen down all conflicts. Michael Gove has been making changes, and like all radicals he has made enemies, mainly the right ones – the vested interests. So he has to go. But there’s a more sinister tale too. Apparently, according to those irrepressible “sources”, it was the focus groups that did for Gove. It is said that voters in marginal seats respond badly to him.

Now, I bow to no-one in my enthusiasm for properly used polling to inform and improve politics, but this seems to be a clear-cut example of a pollster arrogating to themselves the constitutional right of choosing the Cabinet. Chilling.

Other disturbing factors are that William Hague was moved out of the Foreign Office after a series of attacks on him for going soft. Particularly disturbing was the undertow of criticism from the right of his support for the cause of ending the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. It was as if this wasn’t a proper cause for a Conservative government to take up. Yet, surely this – more than anything else – was an example of a policy that women of all parties could support, and indeed one that might persuade floating voters to move to Cameron.

On the European front, peace was being made entirely with Tory back-benchers. (In retrospect, it will be seen that one of the defining features of the Cameron government was this weakness in the face of a divided Tory Party.) A publicly popular minister like Ken Clarke goes because he always defends the European project. And Dominic Grieve is sacked as Attorney General even though he is respected by the legal profession because he believes manoeuvres on the European Convention of Human Rights are a “legal car-crash”. But like almost every other difficult decision the government faces – think of the renewal of Trident – this has been kicked beyond the next election.

This is the third fact of the reshuffle. The government has decided to do nothing over the next ten months. Absolutely nothing. We already knew from the Queen’s Speech how empty the legislative programme is going to be.

If you thought politics dragged in the days and weeks of the last four years, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The announcement that Hague, as Leader of the House, and Gove, as chief whip, would both have significant presentational roles were partly face-saving for both men but also an indication of the real battle-ground over the coming months – the papers, TV and radio.

In one way this is the consequence of the barmy decision to have a five-year, fixed-term parliament. Traditionally there is only one purpose for the fifth year of a parliament – to run as fast as possible from the judgment of the electorate and hope that something turns up.

That is the position the coalition has reached. As parliament enters its fifth year, Labour’s lead over the Tories enters its fifth year too. Surely it will get better, think the Tories. It can’t get worse, pray the Liberal Democrats.

Wrong. If you look at the five-year parliaments that ended in elections in 1964, 1979, 1992, 1997 and 2010, all showed a swing to the opposition in the final six to 12 months, showing that when voters have made up their minds governments can run, but they can’t hide.

There is a pattern to the reshuffle, an underlying logic and there has been a brutality about it. But for all the theatre it is the ultimate tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

We are still none the wiser about what David Cameron stands for, let alone what he will fight for. Apart from, that is, to stay in power. Cameron and Osborne don’t want to leave the EU, but they are losing – in Hague and Clarke – two of their most eloquent advocates. They want to appeal to women and the North – but surely they must know that if Esther McVey is the answer, they have asked completely the wrong question. They want to be dynamic – but have abandoned meaningful parliamentary activity.

The stage has been cleared, but it is still not clear why.