British cabinet reshuffles are normally pretty anodyne affairs. The logic behind them is to freshen up a government, redistribute patronage, promote talent, punish disloyalty, or put a tired minister or two out to pasture. What normally happens is that a procession of men in grey suits are snapped by press photographers as they walk in and out of Number Ten Downing Street over the course of the day. While the media follow events closely, the public only pay fleeting attention to the comings and goings. The word “shuffle” itself captures the convention nicely—usually a changing of chairs, rather than a changing of the guard.
David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle of July 14–15, 2014, represents a revolution by comparison. It is the most bold, brutal and bloody in decades—perhaps ever. The British press labelled it have labelled it the “Night of the Long Knives”—a cull of the “male, pale, and stale” ministers who had come to define Cameron’s government. Out went some of most recognisable “heavyweights” in British politics—including the Foreign and Education Secretaries, William Hague and Michael Gove—and in came a raft of young new ministers, a number of them having only become MPs at the time of the 2010 general election. It was an attempt to reverse the perception that Cameron’s government has been the exclusive preserve old boy’s network, a select group of “chums” who were out of touch with the country.
The defining feature of the reshuffle was the appointment of nine new women ministers, including two working mothers. The existing four female cabinet members stayed in their positions. Over the course of two days, according the Daily Mail, the voice of populist conservatism much loved by the mothers of Middle England, Downing Street had gone from a procession of grey suits to a catwalk. The credentials of the new intake were minutely examined, along with their handbags and shoes.
All these moves were made with the next general election in mind, which will take place in less than a year. Given the implosion of the Labour party under Gordon Brown, it remains a rebuke to David Cameron’s leadership that he did not manage to win an outright majority at the 2010 general election, and was forced into a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. While the Conservatives do have a narrow lead in some polls—unusual for the incumbent party—the anomalies of the British electoral system mean that they will struggle to win a working majority on current numbers. Indeed, there is still a significant chance that the Labour Party could become the largest party, despite dire approval ratings for leader Ed Miliband.
On the two most important indices in British politics—trust in leadership and economic competence—Cameron scores well. He has even survived the fall-out from the demise of his former communications director Andy Coulson, who was found guilt of illegal phone hacking and sent to prison in June. Cameron had employed Coulson despite the whiff of scandal that had followed him from his time as editor of the Murdoch-owned tabloid, News of the World. While Coulson’s conviction raised familiar questions about Cameron’s judgement, his personal approval ratings have remained high. The fact is that the Prime Minister is not the focus of most of the ire directed at the government. Unloved by his own party, he is their greatest asset.
On the economy, which has seen significant recovery in the last twelve months, the Conservatives have won the argument—for now at least. Faced with the global financial crisis when they first arrived in office in 2010, they opted for retrenchment and deficit reduction in preference to Labour’s calls for an Obama-style stimulus approach. This course was hard going until 2013 but they have come through the other side to reap the benefit of much improved growth and unemployment figures. The renaissance of the Chancellor, George Osborne, who had to ride rough waves for three years, tells its own story. Osborne, previously one of the most unpopular ministers in the government, is fastened to the Prime Minister’s side. Their fates seem ever more entwined, as other erstwhile Cameron loyalists fall by the wayside.
Given that they have much going in their favour, the inability of the Conservatives to carve out a sufficient lead has been a source of much internal angst and soul-searching within the party. There are various explanations for this failure. Some, on the right of the party, argue that the Conservatives’ main weakness has been their complacency towards the emerging force of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), who outflank the Conservatives on the related issues of the European Union and immigration, which are of growing concern to voters.
Others caution against the temptation of a lurch to the right in order to fend off UKIP. Much of Cameron’s early work as leader was to detoxify the brand of “the nasty party” under which the Tories laboured during the Blair years. Most British general elections are won in the centre ground. One unavoidable problem is that the Conservatives still poll badly with women voters and ethnic minorities, who see them as the party of angry white men, and are almost solely confined to the south of England, with a scant presence in the north or in Scotland. The domination of the cabinet by an unrepresentative elite, including an oddly high proportion of ministers from Eton College and Oxford University, underscored the problem. Thus Cameron expresses the hope that his new government would be “more representative of modern Britain”.
In making this gamble, Cameron has relied on the advice of one person more than any other: Lynton Crosby, the Australian election guru who made his name masterminding successive victories for John Howard in Australia. Crosby, known as “the Australian Karl Rove” and the “Wizard of Oz” places huge emphasis on polling figures and focus groups. The Crosby calculus has been the defining factor in every ministerial change. Those ministers who scored low in terms of public popularity, such as Michael Gove (Education) and Owen Paterson (Environment) were its most prominent victims, despite being very well-regarded within their own party. Populism rather than competence has been the order of the day.
Cameron will now have some heavyweight enemies on his own backbenches. Paterson, for example, is known to have been furious at his sacking. There are also grumblings of discontent from the supporters of Gove and an element of frustration that style has been put over substance. But here Crosby has played a deft hand in preventing an outright rebellion from the Tory right. Behind the PR exercise of correcting the gender imbalance is a more subtle change of gear. Of the new ministers, nearly all of them are from the Eurosceptic wing of the party.
In Philip Hammond, Britain now has a Foreign Secretary who has said he would take Britain out of the European Union if the country is not able to renegotiate its relationship with Brussels. His appointment may, in part, reflect Cameron’s desire to play hard play with other leaders on the Continent, after a series of recent humiliations. But it will also be intended to buy off the Tory right who might otherwise have gone into revolt over the way in which the reshuffle was handled.
More than anything, it is the fate of Michael Gove which has dominated the press coverage in the UK. Just days before the reshuffle, Gove was said to have been telling aides that he was “going nowhere”. He is, after all, one of Cameron’s longest standing allies in politics. While Gove himself is a staunch loyalist and has always played down his own ambitions to fill the top spot, he has become something of a divisive figure, clashing with Home Secretary Teresa May, in recent times. The indiscretion of some of his close allies may have cost him some goodwill with the Prime Minister. Former right-hand man Dominic Cummings has been brutally critical of the Prime Minister on more than one occasion.
Yet, while Gove divides opinion, he has in many ways been the true star of this Conservative government—perhaps its only one. A true meritocrat, he entered government with a clear-sighted goal of transforming the British education system. In doing so, he has effectively gone to war with the teaching establishment and been in almost constant conflict with the National Union of Teachers, which has been crowing at his demise.
Gove has not been fired, it is worth noting, but moved to a position which will still give him significant leverage in the government. As Chief Whip, he will be responsible for ensuring party loyalty in parliament which may, ironically, bring him into conflict with some of his admirers on the backbenchers, disgruntled by Cameron’s own direction. But there is no glossing over the fact that this is a huge blow to Gove and his team. One newspaper cartoonist caught the moment perfectly, depicting Gove surrendering his hands in the air, as Cameron cocked a shotgun at him and screamed “This is not a demotion!” Lest anyone is any any doubt, his official salary will drop by almost a third.
While much chastened, Gove survives to fight another day. New ministers arriving to meet the Prime Minister were surprised to find the new Chief Whip sitting beside him. He has swallowed the bitter pill and, in the event of a Conservative victory, may be handsomely rewarded for doing so. American readers may be interested to know that “Francis Urquhart”, the anti-hero of the British version of House of Cards, played out his machinations from the same cabinet position.
One undoubted consequence of the reshuffle is a diminution in intellectual depth and quality in the government. Of the new ministers, few will be classed as “ideas” people. Nowhere is this trend more visible than at the Foreign Office where Hammond (erstwhile Defence Secretary) replaces William Hague. By convention, the second great office of state is usually filled by one of the most distinguished and well-known members of cabinet. Hammond does not fit the traditional mould. Unlike most Foreign Secretaries before him he takes no clear vision into the office beyond a cold-eyed approach to “good management”.
Britain, if not a first rate power in the world, is still emotionally wedded to the idea of playing a global role. An accomplished historian, Hague has at least shared this vision and is cognisant of the delicate diplomatic balancing act required to fulfil it—a combination of commitment to the Atlantic alliance and management of European alliances which Churchill called “positioning”. Through his “diplomatic excellence” initiative, he sought to reinvigorate British diplomacy emphasised the importance of language training, historical memory and establishing a greater presence in the “new world”. Against this, Hammond’s staunch Euroscepticism and reputation for probity with public money will not sit easy with the British diplomatic establishment.
It would be a mistake to underestimate Hammond, who is a determined creature. His tenure as Defence Secretary was marked by some of the most severe cuts in British military spending since the 1950s. But he managed to prevent a public rupture with the armed forces which many expected. The opposition to these cuts was surprisingly muted, particularly given that Hammond abandoned a “salami slice” approach to cuts in favour of a wholesale downgrading of strategic capabilities.
That Hammond encountered relatively little opposition as Defence Secretary says something about current attitudes to Britain’s world role, which, as ever, echo developments in the United States. The Labour Party, still scarred by the Iraq experience and haunted by the ghost of Tory Blair, have an instinctive aversion to sounding more hawkish on any issue. Their main contribution to the foreign policy debate has been to insist on the ring-fencing of budgets for international aid and development, something which Cameron has so far supported, but which Hammond may already have in his targets.