Dead In The Water

Theresa May - Conservative Party - Tories - Government Cabinet reshuffle

Looking for positive signs in this most underwhelming of ‘major’ Cabinet reshuffles

What to make of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle?

Firstly, one cannot escape how incredibly underwhelming it is. If you are going to let the media run with the story that a “major” Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, better make darn sure that the extent of shuffling lives up to the hype. On this occasion the advertisement was significantly glitzier than the product, which together with the stunningly botched rollout only added to the impression that the Tories are a frightened, disorganised mess.

Following on from that, the limited extent of the reshuffle – with Education being the only really significant department seeing a change – is another depressing reminder that Britain is led by someone without the authority to stamp her will on a party which is crying out for firm direction, let alone on a fractious and divided country.

Thirdly, even if Theresa May had wanted to carry out a wider-ranging reshuffle, what could she possibly have done that would have made the slightest difference to the direction of her party, the ambitions of the government or the fortunes of the nation? Maybe tomorrow we will see some encouraging promotions to the junior ministerial ranks – one might hope that some solid backbenchers with a bit of vision and ideological gumption, people like Kwasi Kwarteng or Chris Philp, might finally be given some executive responsibility and a launchpad to bigger and better things.

But in terms of big-hitters whose appointment or shuffling might make an immediate impact on the overall tone of the government, there was precious little that could be done even if the prime minister had wanted to shake things up. The sickness within the Conservative Party is deep, pervading all the way up from the (dying) grassroots through the activists, prospective parliamentary candidates and much of the parliamentary party, and a reshuffle can only be as good as the cards you have to deal.

In terms of bright spots, one can summon a degree of enthusiasm for the fact that charismatic MP James Cleverly has been made Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, but odds are that the centralising, micromanaging bureaucrats of CCHQ will chew him up and spit him out just as they did to Rob Halfon before him, nodding sagely while Cleverly reels off a litany of smart and worthwhile suggestions before ploughing on in exactly the same dismal direction as before, tacitly encouraged by Theresa May.

I do also reserve a spot of admiration for “beleaguered” Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (which Health Secretary of either party has ever not been described as beleaguered, and at this point shouldn’t that really tell us more about the anachronistic National Health Service for which they are responsible than the personal acumen of any given incumbent?).

Being a Tory Health Secretary is surely the most lethal of poisoned chalices when it comes to future career prospects. The role guarantees that one will be pilloried by the Left as a heartless monster who cackles as nurses are forced to food banks and patients die on trolleys, regardless of one’s actual record.

Yes yes, All Hail the NHS.

For some reason either involving masochism or great nobility, Jeremy Hunt has borne this burden stoically for six years, and for him to plead with Theresa May to not only keep his current brief but also assume responsibility for social care is quietly impressive, and shows character. I personally think that the Tories are far too timid when it comes to healthcare, but if we must set our sights low and keep Our Blessed NHS in more or less its current form, we at least need to merge it with social care – and hopefully this is an indication that the government is looking to do so.

The main problem with the reshuffle though, aside from its timidity, is that it gives no real indication of a likely change in the soul of this ideologically lost Tory government. All of the great offices of state, the main levers through which a government might seek to remake the country in its image, remain in the same uninspiring hands. Meanwhile, a bunch of junior ministers play musical chairs with one another in a frenetic pantomine apparently designed to distract us from the fact that the prime minister remains far too politically weak to move any of the people who most need moving.

But even if Theresa May did have any residual authority to undertake a real reshuffle, what difference would it make? The reshuffles that truly matter in historical or strategic terms are ones where you think “ooh, that person is going to take Department Y in a totally different direction because they are a strong believer in X”. One thinks of Margaret Thatcher’s reshuffle in 1981, in which she sought to purge some of the Tory Wets, remaining holdovers from the days of opposition who were still wedded to the failed post-war consensus.

Yet few MPs serving in Theresa May’s Cabinet, especially the most senior ones, are known for having strong ideological feelings about anything at all. Indeed, many of them seem to cultivate a deliberate sense of vagueness, giving speeches stuffed with meaningless platitudes to disguise the fact that they are chickening out from taking a bold position on anything remotely controversial (cough, Amber Rudd, cough).

Believing in things and daring to stake a bold position is dangerous in this day and age – unless you are Jeremy Corbyn or retiring from electoral politics. Far better to be blandly inoffensive, to keep everybody on side and be ambiguous about your intentions if you want to get ahead – only too often this leads to the gradual atrophy of any real policy intentions at all. Spend long enough trying to be all things to all people and soon enough you’ll forget what, if anything, you went into politics to do in the first place.

This uninspired, unambitious, managerial technocracy was the algae-asphyxiated pond in which Theresa May went to fish for new talent, and her near total lack of authority within her own party was the dismal climate in which she set off with her rod and tackle. Unsurprising, then, that she came back with little more than a few old boots to show for her efforts.

And so to abandon the fishing metaphor for another, we have ended up with a reshuffle that most closely resembles a particularly dissatisfying game of Scrabble (or Words with Friends, for the smartphone-owning crowd). One swaps out a number of pesky and useless letter tiles in the hope of getting something better in exchange, but ends up with virtually the same tiles back again, only arranged in a slightly different sequence. All that effort and a missed turn, and still you are unable to spell anything meaningful or score more than a handful of points, be it on the Scrabble board or the statute books.

So far as I can tell, virtually nothing has changed. Good luck and God speed to James Cleverly as he goes off to bash heads together (or more likely have his own caved in) at CCHQ, and may angels minister to Jeremy Hunt as he continues his lonely mission to serve as Chief Cartoon Villain to every leftist in the land. But besides that, who seriously expects a shockingly new bold policy to emerge from this cohort?

I hope I’m wrong. But more than ever I think it is going to take external events – potentially very disruptive and unwelcome ones – to shock any kind of life back into the moribund Conservative Party, the kind of political shock therapy which also tends to land the patient back in Opposition for a time.


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Bring On Jeremy Corbyn’s Cabinet Reshuffle, And Save Us From These Whining Babies

Spineless nonentities in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet seek to undermine the Labour leader at every turn, yet demand respect and job security for themselves

Never mind all those people who spent Christmas on the streets, in hospital or caught in the grinding deprivation which still grips too many of our fellow citizens. They can all go to hell. Instead, you should spare a thought for those poor Labour shadow cabinet members who spent the past three months agitating against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and who have suddenly woken up to the realisation that publicly trashing your boss in the national media is a poor guarantor of job security.

Just when you think that the preening sanctimony and self-regard of the Labour Party and its parliamentary caucus cannot possibly get any worse, they somehow manage to find a new low. And this time they have excelled themselves, with coddled and self-entitled Labour shadow cabinet members weeping to journalists that rumours of a coming Corbyn reshuffle “ruined” their Christmas and New Year break.

The Telegraph reports:

Jeremy Corbyn “ruined Christmas” for moderate members of his front-bench with his plans for a a “revenge reshuffle”, a shadow cabinet minister has said.

[..] The Labour leader is expected to sack Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, along with Maria Eagle, the shadow defence secretary, and her sister Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary. Rosie Winterton, the chief whip, is also said to be on the brink of being demoted.

The shadow minister said: “Our Christmas was ruined, there’s a level of fear within the party that’s worse than anything I’ve seen since the 1980s. It’s insidious.

“We [moderate members of the shadow cabinet] feel as if we have targets on our backs. This is supposed to be a new politics – instead we’re left wondering if we’ll have a job when we get back after the New Year. I chose to serve as a front-bencher because I am loyal to Labour, I just thought he would respect that”.

It is truly heartbreaking to hear of the emotional torment suffered by those Labour shadow cabinet members who think that Jeremy Corbyn is a disaster, but lack the cojones to publicly say so and win enough popular support of their own to mount a plausible leadership challenge.

Let us all observe a moment of silence for the “ruined” Christmases of the restive Labour centrists. Maybe some bright spark can pull together a legal argument that Corbyn violated their “human rights” with his rumoured reshuffle. After all, no one is better at cooking up fabricated human rights abuses than the Labour Party.

Hilariously, many of the same Labour MPs and shadow cabinet members who spent the past five years bashing the Evil Tories while prancing around as virtuous Defenders of the Poor are now finding themselves on the receiving end of hysterical criticism from the far left for their lack of ideological purity. And they don’t like it one bit.

The Telegraph reports in another article:

A plot to takeover the Labour party by ousting moderate MPs and seizing control of policy making has emerged in a document being circulated by Jeremy Corbyn’s key aides.

The ‘Taking Control of the Party’ blueprint, which has been seen by the Daily Mail, is understood to have been penned by veteran Left-winger Jon Lansman, now a director of the Corbyn-supporters organisation Momentum.

[..] A former Labour shadow minister told the Telegraph: “What we are finding is there’s a Stalinism that’s beginning to appear and a moral superiority which we are finding very irritating.

“It really is very animal farm and deeply unpleasant. What we are getting instead of an attempt to build bridges and compromise, is Stalinism.

“He doesn’t accept that a leader of a mainstream British political party has to adopt certain attitudes and behaviours. Its so childish.”

Moral superiority, from the party of unearned moral superiority? Surely not.

And what arrogant remoteness from the people is revealed by the pompous statement from a Labour shadow cabinet member that things must always be done a certain way – the insistence upon “certain attitudes and behaviours” – and that any attempt to conduct politics differently, to favour the people over the political class, is “so childish”?

No. What’s “so childish” is the born-to-rule mentality of centrists from all parties – but particularly the current Labour Party – who seek to make a virtue out of the fact that they believe in nothing and stand for nothing, save the aquisition and keeping of power.

What’s “so childish” is the tantrum-like meltdown occurring within mainstream Labour; the incredulous refusal to accept that their utter vacuity, when it came to policy making or offering an alternative vision for Britain, is the reason why they have been swept from their lofty perches and displaced by the Corbynites who (love them or hate them) actually do stand for something.

If Blairite and Brownite centre-leftism is so star-spangled awesome, why was it so comprehensively routed at the ballot box in May? And if telegenic soundbite-bots like Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper truly have what it takes to be a viable world leader in waiting, why were they unable to convince any more than a handful of supporters to vote for their respective candidacies?

There is almost nobody currently sitting in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet who could plausibly be described as exceptional, let alone as a future prime minister. Many of them would never have gotten close to front bench politics were it not for the fact that Corbyn was desperate for warm bodies when trying to assemble his team, and had to accept mediocrity in order to make up the numbers.

And yet these spineless nonentities – these utterly unremarkable politics-bots, many of whom would be toiling away in dusty select committees or vying for the title of Best Constituency MP had they not been plucked from obscurity by Jeremy Corbyn – dare to complain that their leader does not shower them with effusive praise when they brief against him anonymously to the daily papers, or publicly distance themselves from him on television.

What ungrateful, forgettable, pathetic weaklings.

Dan Hodges is absolutely right when he makes the point:

There is also something faintly pathetic about the cries of anguish emanating from around the shadow cabinet table. Those who have taken the fight to their leader were right to do so. But they can hardly complain when he fights back. It’s a bit like watching a pub tough screaming “not in the face” after suddenly finding his aggression reciprocated.

Bring on the reshuffle. And may Jeremy Corbyn’s purge of snivelling moderates, those who criticise anonymously while failing to hold or articulate beliefs of their own, make the Game of Thrones “Red Wedding” episode look like a spring picnic.


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British Conservatives Must Show The Courage Of Their Convictions

Bring Back British Rail


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.