Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Uninspired Cameron stores up trouble, whilst giving Boris his issue.

Well after months of speculation David Cameron has finally got round to performing his first, unforced reshuffle of his cabinet, and pretty uninspiring it was too.

As we know the principal positions remain unchanged; Osborne, May, Hague, Gove, Duncan Smith, Alexander, Cable and Pickles, therefore showing no significant shift in government thinking.  Andrew Mitchell's appointment as Chief Whip and Chris Grayling's as Justice Secretary indicate a right wing shift, especially on law and order. Mitchell is known as a bit of a hard man, and will be expected to keep the rebellious backbenchers more in line, with promises that if they bide their time, then their day will come.

The cabinet does take on a very old-fashioned look, totally dominated by white men in suits, which could well lead to a view that the Conservative party has not changed. This includes those members who are Liberal Democrats, who seem less and less significant, as demonstrated by Nick Clegg's deflated and defeated demeanour during yesterday's statement on the House of Lords debacle.

There are now only four women in official cabinet positions, Theresa May and Theresa Villiers (promoted to Northern Ireland), Justine Greening (now International Development, but more of her later), Maria Miller (replacing Hunt at Culture, Media and Sport) though others will be at the table. Although this is disappointing, no one can really criticise the dismissals of the truly appalling Baroness Warsi and Caroline Spelman.

A number of women have been placed in lower positions and perhaps they will move up as the election draws close, in order to give the government a more balanced look. However, Cameron's abilities as a talent spotter are doubtful as he promotes the likes of Grayling and Miller at the expense of  competent ministers like Harper and Hendry.

There are inevitable disappointments, even for somebody who doesn't support this government like myself. Some of my fellow travellers see all members of the government as the same, but I do not, perhaps because I came later to Labour politics, and was an interested outsider for a long time. Ken Clarke's demotion is a real blow to those who see community justice as a way forward, whereas Grayling is more from the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. Clarke will have a floating role as a minister without portfolio, but this is unlikely to provide satisfaction unless he has something to get his teeth into.

                                          Copyright Daily Telegraph

Lansley's removal brought initial optimism, as an opportunity to get same reining back on NHS privatisation presented itself, but unfortunately his replacement is Jeremy Hunt, a reward for not dropping Cameron totally in it during the Leveson Inquiry. Hunt has been known to support the dismantling of the NHS in the past, so we'll have to see if he still holds those views.

                                          Copyright Daily Telegraph

 I'm not going to go into a detailed examination of the reshuffle as others much better qualified and informed will do so, but just give a brief overview and a few thoughts. As I've said, there is no change in direction economically, with Osborne, Alexander and Cable staying where they are, and socially a rightward drift.

So although an uninspiring reshuffle, with the media really trying to find things to talk about, Cameron could have created a few problems for himself, a situation he is not unfamiliar with.

Firstly is the problem of no change in direction on the economy. George Osborne has overseen a return to recession, with no immediate prospect of recovery, as yet more downgraded forecasts indicate. Something needs to be done here, which both left and right agree on, even if they do on what that should be. Both say that some way to encourage growth is required, but differ substantially on whether stimulus or greater austerity is the way to follow.

Osborne seems unable to decide which he wants to follow, and so dithers along doing nothing in particular, and is on the way to borrowing more money in five years, than Labour did in thirteen. So Cameron's refusal to make any changes here is just storing up even more trouble if the economy doesn't show signs of picking up.

However, he has also given himself a number of ticking bombs with his treatment of Clarke and Lansley. As the only 'big beast' in the government he may find it difficult as a sort of roving troubleshooter, and eventually decide he'd prefer life on the backbenches.

Andrew Lansley has sweated blood in pushing through the Health and Social care Act and may well feel that his demotion to Leader of the House is demeaning. He may well be prepared to put up with it for now, perhaps hoping that once the furore over the reforms to the NHS has died down, he can be found a more senior position elsewhere. If this is not forthcoming within the next year or so, he too may feel a spell on the backbenches will suit him better, and he knows where the bodies are buried.

There is one more timebomb, which, if true, also indicates that Cameron was not necessarily making the decisions. Iain Duncan Smith is rumoured to have been offered Justice, but refused to move, which could indicate that the Prime Minister is weak in the face of really determined ministers. This could have ramifications on future cuts where Duncan Smith has apparently said enough is enough.

But there is one man I believe who will be delighted at the reshuffle and its possible ramifications. Michael Fallon was on Newsnight insisting that the government maintained its position on a third runway at Heathrow, but the removal of Justine Greening as Transport Secretary, who is implacably opposed, and replacing her with Patrick McLoughlin has raised suspicions that this stance is about to change.

                                         Copyright Daily Telegraph

As has been trailed extensively in the media, Boris Johnson is almost seen as a Conservative leader in waiting, the one person who could sweep in and lead the Conservatives to victory at the election, save he's not actually an MP at the moment. That problem, however, is solvable if Boris really wants to try.

But the one thing he has lacked is a big issue, something that substantially differentiates him from David Cameron, and this could now be it. He has made public his opposition to a third runway for some time, but today's machinations have really given him the opportunity to repeat them, calling it a 'mad plan.' 

This is what Johnson needed, a big issue that he can make his own, and if the u-turn does occur, and especially if Zac Goldsmith follows through on his threat to resign and force a by-election on the issue, plenty of publicity. Who knows, perhaps that could be his opportunity to fight it an anti-runway campaign, and return to parliament with his own agenda, but this could of course just be idle speculation.

The third runway is not a minor issue, as it has potentially far-reaching economic and environmental effects. Justine Greening, like Zac Goldsmith is an MP from the area which would be greatly affected, and therefore not just a side issue which just affects the locality. It is Greening's move that is the trigger here, having been so clear in her opposition to the third runway and as I said earlier, McLoughlin's appointment to the transport portfolio could signal a change of heart.

Adding up all this, Cameron could well just be storing trouble up for himself, and with other non-parliamentary issues still bubbling away, I don't see his next couple of years being any better than his first.

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