Reshuffling politics off this mortal coil
The ministerial merry-go-round has always left those outside the Westminster bubble cold, but now even politicians seem disillusioned.
The Guardian’s UK political editor had clearly seen something significant in this week’s game of ministerial musical chairs: ‘Overall, the [cabinet] reshuffle represents a clear shift if not quite a lurch to the right.’ He wasn’t alone in thinking this. ‘Jeremy Hunt to health is two fingers to the left’, shouted another. A sentiment the Financial Times clearly shared: ‘Reshuffle tilts Conservatives to the right.’
It certainly seems that at least some of the press groupies in the Westminster village managed to once again work themselves up into a froth over ministers swapping briefs. For the rest of us, however, the whole spectacle appeared to be little more than an inconsequential PR exercise.
Not that the cabinet reshuffle was entirely insignificant. The replacement of Justine Greening as transport secretary with Patrick ‘Who?’ McLaughlin does have some import. Greening, whose west London constituency of Putney lies near Heathrow, was against a third runway. So with prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne now seemingly warming to the idea of appearing to be in favour of Heathrow’s expansion, Greening’s replacement with the rather more fly-away McLaughlin could well herald a change in what statements the government issues. There might even be an independent commission on the viability of expanding Heathrow. But whether anything will actually be built by this responsibility-averse, decision-ducking government is another matter.
Elsewhere, Rupert Murdoch’s text buddy Jeremy Hunt has been removed from his role as culture secretary. This was to be expected. Not only was Hunt attacked during the Leveson Inquiry for a lack of ministerial impartiality over News Corp’s BSkyB bid, he, as culture secretary, would also have had to front the government’s response to the recommendations of that very same inquiry. Which could have been a bit awkward. But, and this is Cameron’s masterstroke, Hunt was not banished to the backbenches for his cock-up-ability; he was promoted to the position of health secretary. That is, the bête noire of lefty, ‘I love the NHS’ commentators and campaigners, Andrew Lansley, has been replaced by the bête noire of lefty, ‘I hate the Murdoch Empire’ commentators and campaigners, the cheeky Hunt.
But beyond the courtly intrigue of who is and who isn’t currying favour with Cameron and Osborne, there is little to interest anyone not thoroughly embroiled in the affairs of Westminster. Does anyone really think that Hunt is not going to continue the health polices of Lansley, the man the Tories had thinking about the NHS since he took up the brief in 2003? Likewise, does anyone seriously think replacing Baroness Warsi as Tory co-chairman with Tim-Nice-But-Dim-alike Grant Shapps will make an ounce of difference to the direction of the Lib-Con government? For those not working in the Office of Westminster, its office politics – and that’s what the reshuffle amounts to – seem more removed than ever.
In some ways, of course, this has always been the case. Cabinet reshuffles have frequently appeared a bit bizarre to outsiders. Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan’s notorious ‘night of the long knives’ in 1962 (not to be confused with Hitler’s rather more brutal version in 1934), in which he suddenly sacked a third of his cabinet, including chancellor Selwyn Lloyd, his friend and one-time confidant, appeared as shocking for its callousness as it was puzzling for its rationale. For those inside the Tory government though, the point was clear: to freshen up an aging administration that had just suffered a poor round of by-election results. As Macmillan was to write in his diary, the likes of Lloyd no longer had fire in their bellies.
Later, in the 1980s, when prime minister Margaret Thatcher was battling Tory factions, most notably the so-called wets, reshuffles and ministerial demotions were similarly fractious. And, from a non-participant’s perspective, they were also rather arcane, bewildering affairs. The differences between the likes of later, non-Ted Heath-supporting wets such as Douglas Hurd and Ken Clarke and Thatcher’s so-called dries, including Norman Tebbit and Nigel Lawson, seemed to be in degree, not kind. After all, they all supported some notion of state regulation, just as they supported some notion of the free market. Little wonder that to those not privy to the internal conflagrations to which these differences in degree gave rise, the reshuffles and ministerial jostling appeared none too important.
By the New Labour era, the sheer volume of ministerial churn and the sheer number of quickfire reshuffles invited public cynicism rather than intrigue or bafflement. An arbitrariness seemed to cling to each appointment and re-appointment. Whether it was plonking so-and-so into the role of secretary of state for work and pensions, or suddenly creating a new department such as that for energy and climate change, New Labour seemed to be interested in little more than the presentation of policymaking, rather than its substance of making policy. Moreover, it was difficult to remember who was responsible for what, which is useful if the government is trying not to take responsibility for anything. Last year, the head of civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell, was prompted to note: ‘The average length of tenure for a minister is one year and three months, which is really short.’ The position of transport secretary, for instance, has been occupied by a new minister every year since 2006.
Little wonder, given the cynicism New Labour’s frequent reshuffling had helped to generate, that Cameron’s government was determined to resist the urge to change the names on secretary of states’ doors every year or so. And this is what is striking about the response to the current reshuffle. The cynicism towards reshuffling, the sense that it is of little relevance or interest to anyone outside of Westminster, has now been internalised by politicians themselves.
You see, it wasn’t just the coalition’s Labour opponents who were yesterday saying that the reshuffle would change nothing. Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan contended that the electorate simply isn’t interested in which minister does what job: ‘It’s not that voters are apathetic or indifferent or lazy. It’s that they know from long experience that the identity of the minister in charge makes only the slightest dent in the policy of the department.’ MP and fellow Tory Douglas Carswell was similarly unimpressed: ‘[Cameron and Osborne] don’t need to reshuffle the people, they need to reshuffle the ideas and the thinking. They can reshuffle all the personnel they want, but it is a lack of ideas that is the problem.’ Cue the Tory Party’s resident unconstructive critic, MP Nadine Dorries: ‘Of course, the reality is, the reshuffle will make very little, if any difference whatsoever to any area of government policy’, she said. ‘In fact, following a re-shuffle, the progression of policy, good and bad, will be disrupted for some considerable time.’
It’s a strange moment. In the past, the public have often looked askance at the internal goings-on at the Palace of Westminster. But the MPs and ministers themselves have always taken the factional infighting, and the subsequent reshuffling of ministerial positions, seriously. For a Tory wet in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there did seem to be something of principle at stake. As prominent wet Ian Gilmour, in opposition to Thatcher’s ‘monetarist’ obsession with cutting taxes and inflation, put it at the time: ‘Economic liberalism because of its starkness and its failure to create a sense of community is likely to repel people.’ Even during the nadir of New Labour, in particular the Last Days of Brown, those involved in the backstabbing and bum-licking acted as if something, no matter how petty, was at issue.
But now, it seems that even some politicians themselves seem unable to take parliamentary politics seriously. The point to being in power, the reasons to struggle for influence beyond mere careerism, have disappeared. Parliamentary politics seems, well, pointless. In the words of Hannan, ‘the minister is encased in a bureaucratic machine bigger than he is’. Given the might of the civil service, and the extent to which it enacts directives from the EU and the ECHR, Hannan perhaps has a point. But there is something concerning, too, about such an admission: it suggests that even a politician is prepared to give up on politics.
Likewise, when yet another Tory MP admits, ‘at the end of the day, these reshuffles are of great interest for those of us in the Westminster bubble and the media’, but not for the rest of us, there is no doubting the truth of the characterisation. But if even politicians believe that the public has little interest in the ‘Westminster bubble’, that parliamentary politics has an insular, inconsequential quality, then that reveals a great deal about the state of politics today. Lacking in authority and will, it seems even our rulers themselves experience government as an exercise without point.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.