It’s difficult to know where to start in appraising David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle.
It was like one of those cheaply made horror films that are so bad it’s hard not to laugh them. Not only was it full of rather nasty surprises, its essential pattern of promoting the most unsuitable and incapable personnel to the most important jobs suggested an experiment far more daring, but with equally far-reaching ramifications, as that tried by Dr Frankenstein.
There were so many dreadful appointments that it is impossible to choose one that stands out as the most inept. Certainly sending the discredited Jeremy Hunt, under relentless attack from opponents due to his disgraceful handling of News Corporations hoped-for takeover of BSkyB, to health already looks like a key mistake. Lansley had to go, but what worked for Lansley in the past is that he did actually know a fair bit about his brief; in fairness, he was also the fall guy for government policies that Hunt is unlikely to veer away from. Replacing him with someone who is anti-abortion and supportive of homoeopathy defies belief; to do so with a minister who really should have been given his P45 months ago is politically risky to say the least. What the Department of Health needs is someone with an understanding of the pertinent issues but also someone with the appropriate personal skills to take on the most sensitive role in government. What is also required is someone capable of listening to expert scientific opinion and acting on it, something Hunt’s record of voting for abortion time to be reduced to twelve weeks doesn’t provide much confidence for. The public needs a health secretary is can have confidence in, not one already viewed with suspicion and distrust.t
Instead, Cameron has appointed probably the most unsuitable candidate for the role. When asked by the BBC for his response to his promotion Hunt blurbed “biggest privilege of my life” – the kind of thing that only someone who really understands what it means to be privileged would say in those circumstances. In his mind it was all about Jeremy Hunt, rather than making the NHS function more effectively or creating a healthier nation.
That appointment was quite a shock, but at least a change at health always looked likely. More concerning in some respects was the demotion of Ken Clarke, one of the few ministers who has actually taken well to his brief and facilitated some promising reform. That he is now minister without portfolio is bad enough news for Liberal Democrats, the Howard League for Penal Reform and indeed anyone else with progressive views on criminal justice policy. That he was replaced by Chris Grayling, a right-winger who appears to believe that B&Bs should be able to discriminate against same-sex couples, is truly frightening. Grayling has little time for the concept of rehabilitation, preferring a harsher, more punitive approach including automatic prison terms for anyone carrying a knife. This is a man who, before the General Election, was proposing the ludicrous and economically inefficient notion of “prison ships” as a means of significantly expanding prisons without having to be overly concerned about planning permission. He also has a personal, almost obsessive, mission to challenge the “aggressive encroachment” of the European Human Rights Act and the conventions that underpin it. All Clarke’s sterling efforts to make overdue progress could well prove to be in vain.
Could it get any worse? Well, yes. Not only was Ken Clarke removed from the cabinet but the other voice of sanity, Sir George Young, now finds a new place on the backbenches. In keeping with the Prime Minister's determination to promote the most undeserving and unsuitable, Maria Miller becomes Culture Secretary with responsibility for women and equalities. Miller previously supported Nadine Dorries’ ill-fated amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill seeking to prevent abortion providers from providing counselling services. Like Hunt, she has voted against scientific consensus and for a lowering of the abortion time limit. She also reportedly views hate crime as "freedom of speech". Do we really need an anti-abortionist with less than progressive views on LGBT equality taking over where Lynne Featherstone left off (shamefully shunted to international development)? Cameron might as well have appointed Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
Not content to simply promote the undeserving, the Prime Minister also demoted the more capable ministers. Aside from Clarke, Justine Greening was moved from transport to international development apparently for daring to have a mind of her own and a determination to actually get things done. This was clearly an insult too far for Mayor of London Boris Johnson who claimed that “there can be only one reason to move her – and that is to expand Heathrow airport.” It’s difficult to disagree with such straight-talking analysis, or his view that the government’s apparent desire to extend Heathrow (after 2015) is “mad”. Greening’s removal from the transport portfolio brings the Prime Minister’s judgement into serious question, given that she was only appointed ten months ago. It also makes the government’s policymaking look ill-considered and desperate.
Other undeserving beneficiaries include Grant Shapps who, in spite of being linked to a company profiting from breaching advertising rules and living a dual life as “Michael Green”, is now Tory Party Chairman. I don’t see the appointment itself as particularly contentious, even though there must have been better candidates, but what I do object to is that the chairmanship brings with it a seat in cabinet. Since when has party chairman been a valid ministerial position?
Theresa Villiers, another opponent of the Heathrow development, is sent to pastures new where she cannot interfere with the projected U-turn –Northern Ireland. Owen Paterson, another plucked from obscurity to responsibility, believes that wind farms represent “a massive waste of consumers’ money”, opposes subsidies for renewables and supports shale gas. Clearly then a sensible choice as environment minister. So much for Cameron’s promise of being the “greenest government ever”.
Cameron had stated that the purpose of the reshuffle was to bring some “freshness” to government. He hasn’t done that. If this was an exercise in reassuring the public it has failed spectacularly. But this was not a reshuffle designed to create more effective government; it was not made in the interests of the country but in the interests of the Tory Right. Little wonder that Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries were so delighted.
It seems a strange strategy from Cameron who, until a year ago, I actually believed had genuine reformist and modernising credentials. Firstly, he risks taking his party back to the times when they were almost universally recognised as the “nasty party”. Secondly, he provides a stronger voice to the party’s right wing, with the likes of Grayling and Hunt well positioned to cement their reputations as leading heavyweights important to both government and the Conservatives’ future – as well as potentially challenging the leadership. This could well prove a fatal error on the Prime Minister’s part, not least because he fails to recognise, unlike Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, that the most effective means of marginalising unsavoury elements of the party is to challenge them rather than promote their figureheads.
In attempting to win over his party’s right-wingers, Cameron has actually weakened his own position. He does not look like a man in control – either of his government or his party. Furthermore, he’s made some odd strategic errors for short-term gain – not least allowing Ken Clarke a “roving brief” to undermine and openly question the government’s economic direction.
The real question from a Liberal Democrat perspective is this: what does the reshuffle mean for us? In purely personnel terms, very little. Our cabinet ministers remain in place, in spite of speculation that Michael Moore would be moved from the Scottish Office. David Laws returns as an education minister, a prize that Nick Clegg clearly was eager to claim, at the expense of Sarah Teather. Lynne Featherstone was denied the opportunity to carry forward the marriage equality legislation she has championed so effectively, something that concerns myself and other LGBT equality activists. Norman Lamb makes a welcome return to health and David Heath becomes farming minister. Tom Brake becomes deputy leader of the Commons, a post refused by Simon Hughes. Jo Swinson is minister for business, innovation and skills.
However, there can be no denying that this reshuffle has huge ramifications for inter-party coalition relations. It has raised some serious party management issues that it would be unwise to ignore. Clearly, the idea that Liberal Democrats act as a restraining force on the Tories, curbing their excesses, can finally be put to rest. Not only is the Conservative Party lurching firmly to the right - so is the government in which we are part, and we are helpless to do anything about it.
This reshuffle has not only made the Prime Minister appear weak, but has also weakened his deputy. His influence in government has been shown up for what it is: negligible. That, of course, is not Clegg’s fault but it is time for the Liberal Democrats to take stock and rethink our approach to the coalition. We have been undermined and outflanked by Cameron on so many occasions that there seems very little reason to continue with the false sham marriage that is the Westminster coalition. As a unit, the coalition is unfit for purpose; it no longer can claim to be designed to work for the public good. The Liberal Democrats have been less effective in the first two years than we would have liked and now face more hostile faces in cabinet as, tellingly, the Prime Minister put appeasement of his party’s right-wing before coalition unity.
Coalition requires mutual respect if not mutual understanding. David Cameron used his reshuffle to send a very clear signal to his Liberal Democrat partners, aptly summarised by fellow blogger Jennie Rigg as “taking everything we hold dear, stamping on it and laughing in our faces”.
I have defended the coalition in the past, even though I have expressed disagreement with much of its policy direction. This is because I am a pluralist, and a believe in collaborative, cross-party approaches to politics. I also believe that, in the context of May 2010, it was right for us to try to work out a positive arrangement with the largest party, even if I was unconvinced about the way the negotiations were handled and some of the justifications for the agreement being drawn up rather hastily. I believed that we could not only show that coalition politics work, but that we could imbue government policy with a strong liberal streak.
Two years later, and we have done some things in government of which we should rightly be proud. Tactically and strategically, however, we’ve been outmanoeuvred by our partners time after time, while the leadership has been weak at key moments. On the not insignificant issues of electoral and constitutional reform, even the most positive Lib Dem would have to concede that we’ve been far less effective than we’d have envisioned. And now, after this dreadful reshuffle, our scope for being effective in government is reduced further. I cannot now continue to believe in this coalition. It does not work in the interests of either the country or our party. With this reshuffle Cameron has effectively abandoned the positive, co-operative politics he claimed to embrace two years ago. Not only is the Prime Minister not on our side, neither is the electoral arithmetic – hence why over 50% of Lib Dem MPs not voting in support of tuition fees made zero impact while a minority Tory rebellion crushed any aspiration of House of Lords reform.
Where do we go now? There are many fellow Lib Dems who believe that this reshuffle represents something of an opportunity for us. Their logic suggests that the Tories have now turned so far to the right that it is so much easier for us to differentiate ourselves from them and for Nick Clegg to increase his popularity and personal credibility by speaking out against the more unpalatable Tory thinking. I understand this – certainly, if we are to remain in government we alone will have to provide the progressive voice on such issues as justice (promoting restorative justice and rehabilitation), equality (where does the cause of equal marriage go now?) and health (the likely drive towards increased commercialisation of the NHS must be resisted). But we’re not in government to embark on a differentiation strategy – in any case, we could far more easily do that outside of government! Neither are we there simply to tame the Conservatives or to find opportunities for Nick Clegg to score political points.
We’re in coalition to provide good government. And, if we’re not able to do that, we shouldn’t be there. Responding to news of the reshuffle detail on twitter I remarked “We have to be effective in government. When the coalition veers towards the right, it's hard to see how.” Curiously Tim Farron tweeted back: “I totally agree with you Andrew”. However, a “senior” official advised The Guardian that he took “solace [that] the coalition agreement and decision-making processes were still intact.” Really? Could that be the same senior Lib Dem who told The Guardian only weeks ago that the Tories had reneged on the coalition agreement and that there would be “consequences”?
For the next three years we can struggle with the Tories, have our public (and private) spats with them, frustrate one or two of their policy ideas and infuriate their right-wingers with our liberal sensibilities. While it’s always amusing to rile the likes of Peter Bone and Nadine Dorries, that is not why we exist as a party. None of this would be good coalition politics, nor would it help our party particularly.
We are parties very definitely moving in different, if not entirely opposite, directions. I have lost faith in David Cameron’s ability to lead a coalition government, and even in his appetite to do so. I don’t yearn for a return to opposition and I would like to see the Liberal Democrats in a position to deliver good, strong, decisive government, but it’s uncertain how we can do that when the Prime Minister creates a cabinet good only for the purposes of silencing discontent from his own right-wingers, strong only in its destructive potential and decided only to be undecided.
If we are to stay in coalition, we have to find ways of providing that good government even as the Tories are actively attempting to undermine us. We must provide that strength and decisiveness while also showing respect and looking to cultivate positive working relationships with our coalition partners. Quite how we can do this is something of a mystery to me given what the reshuffle reveals about the attitudes of the Prime Minister - answers on a postcard please to Mr N. Clegg, House of Commons, London SW1A 1AA.