David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle dominated the news over the past week – at least, until it was totally overshadowed by world events in Gaza and Ukraine. But the punditry and speculation about who is up and who is down, who succeeded in clawing their way into Cameron’s inner circle and who was excommunicated to the fringes, generally lacked a certain something. Call it relevance.
Beware of anyone offering a neatly packaged, coherent analysis of David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle so early in its aftermath. There’s a lot of ready made narratives out there – Ken Clarke’s departure heralding the death of the big beasts, the timely promotion of women to the cabinet, the opportunistic promotion of women to the cabinet, the misogynist promotion of women to the cabinet, the triumph of social conservatives, the social conservative purge and the elevation of arch-eurosceptics, to name just a few. The only thing uniting these narratives is that they are quite contradictory, and that they are already out of date.
If you insist on looking for a consistent theme in the Cabinet reshuffle in place of the dull reality (a series of largely independent political calculations by a cautious government), it is not the glaring fact that this was a political reshuffle – paging Captain Obvious – but that it was such a defensive political reshuffle in the run-up to the general election.
With less than a year left of the current coalition government, there was really no point in having a reshuffle at all, from a policy perspective. Little real governing will be done with the coalition partners both manoeuvring to define themselves against each other and take credit for past accomplishments, meaning the only real work left to be done is the cementing and locking down of reforms that have already been made. For all intents and purposes, we are now entering a lame duck session of Parliament.
Given this fact, the most sensible thing for David Cameron to have done – both to achieve the goals of cementing existing government policies and publicly standing behind them – would have been to not have a Cabinet reshuffle at all. But resoluteness and steadfastness was not on David Cameron’s list of priorities. In far too many cases, the personnel changes suggested an apology for successful conservative policy and right-wing thinking in general.
The plain truth is that the conservative agenda – enacted properly and with consideration – works. Privatisation works, welfare reform works (as Fraser Nelson forcefully argued last week), conservative education reform works. Though we should rightly acknowledge and mitigate the negative side effects of weaning people off government aid – and be blunt that these are often counted in terms of human suffering – conservatives should stand unapologetically behind their record, and the ideology which underpins it.
But just when the Conservative Party should be standing up for its beliefs and accomplishments, the coalition government seems more eager to run away from them, to excuse them in the context of “tough decisions to pull the country out of recession”, or to reveal their fear by preventing the proper scrutiny of opposing ideas.
Take the Commons vote to allow the Office for Budgetary Responsibility to audit and pass judgement on Labour Party budget proposals. A confident Tory party that stood behind its accusations of thoughtless left-wing spendthriftery would welcome the harsh spotlight of a non-partisan body like the OBR being shone on official Opposition proposals, but instead the Conservatives made it known (with dubious reasoning) that they were against the proposal.
(It should be noted that in the United States, the equivalent Congressional Budget Office scrutinises draft legislation submitted by both Republicans and Democrats, which further helps to cement its reputation as a non-partisan body).
Look also at the question of railway renationalisation. Pushing an even greater proportion of the British economy into the dead hands of the state is generally a terrible idea, but reflexive Tory opposition to what Ed Miliband and Labour are proposing is counterproductive. Firstly, it glosses over some of the legitimate flaws in the way that the rail privatisation was carried out, and the way in which the privatised railway system is structured. Ignoring legitimate criticism is never the path to good future governance. But secondly, it suggests a lack of confidence in the Tories’ own ideology. If the private sector is so darn efficient and dynamic, what worry should private firms have if the bloated, inefficient state tries to bid for their train franchises, when surely they would lose every single time?
And in the most high profile case of conservative reshuffle apologetics, Michael Gove – one of the few Conservative ministers to successfully enact genuinely bold conservative reforms – was moved away from the Department of Education and demoted to the position of Chief Whip (those arguing that it was not a demotion should compare the salaries of the two roles).
Alarmingly, much of the reaction to Gove’s departure suggested that he was moved on not because his reforms had failed, but because he hadn’t flattered people with enough platitudes while successfully enacting them. The truth about Mr Gove can be discerned by parsing the reaction of Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. The Telegraph reports Hobby’s view:
“Michael Gove had a radical and sincere vision for transforming education but he often failed to bring the profession with him.
“His diagnosis was frequently astute but his prescriptions were hard to swallow. It is now time to rebuild trust and confidence between government and teachers so that improvements can endure.”
Translated, this means that Gove’s ideas and reforms were quite sound, but he rubbed too many powerful special interests up the wrong way in the course of implementing them. With his removal by Cameron, good policymaking was subordinated to public sector union ego-stroking.
The unions clearly felt that Michael Gove did not respect them – time and time again, in interview after interview with cheerful teachers, this was the constant refrain. After the dust settles, perhaps people will start asking when the pride of the teachers unions and the egos of individual teachers became more important than implementing the best possible education policy for Britain’s children.
At the recent Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty, organised by the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, former Australian prime minister John Howard made an important observation. Reflecting on his three successive election victories, Howard said: “The worst way to try to win office is to pretend you’re not too different from your opponents.”
If David Cameron and the Conservative Party are to succeed in their audacious goal of winning an outright majority in the 2015 general election, the path to victory does not lie in pretending to be Ed Miliband’s mollycoddling Labour Party with a small added dose of fiscal realism. If people want a fiscally irresponsible government pledging obsequious servitude to the public sector unions and buying into their pretence of representing the public interest, they will vote for the real thing, not a pale imitation. The Conservative Party must stand behind their limited successful reforms, and promise to double down if they are re-elected to government in 2015.
With the general election less than ten months away, this is no time for small government conservatives to falter.