Cameron shuffles to the right
The Tory reshuffle sees David Cameron shoring up his right flank in the run-up to the 2015 general election, writes Paul Demarty
It is increasingly plain that we are in election season.
Labour is humming and hawing, unenthusiastically, about state railway franchises (how remarkable it is that the most bungled, obviously counterproductive privatisation in history should attract only such mild tinkering proposals from an opposition party - but still).
The Liberal Democrats are finding reasons to distance themselves from the Tories: Nick Clegg has suddenly noticed that the bedroom tax (not even Eric Pickles can bring himself to call it the ‘spare room subsidy’ any more) is resulting in people being unable to pay the rent. How’s that for a surprise? Better still, Vince Cable has given up trying to sell off the student loan book, causing all kinds of chaos, although it is unknown whether there exists a capitalist stupid enough to buy a cache of debts that are singularly unlikely, in a time of plummeting graduate salaries and broad unemployment, ever to be repaid in full.
As for the Tories, they have made their intentions clear with their recent reshuffle. Make no mistake - the current cabinet, or at least its Tory component, is a war cabinet, designed for the run-in to next spring. Lynton Crosby, David Cameron’s rottweiler polling guru, has his fingerprints all over it - and, while various scores are being settled, the general drift is to the right.
Indeed, the essence of what is going on can be summarised in two names - Kenneth Clarke and Philip Hammond. Clarke, until last week, was by far the longest serving Tory frontbencher; in this parliament, he has served as minister of justice and recently without portfolio, as a high-level trade envoy.
He is now returning to the backbenches - apparently voluntarily, although we may presume that such moves are only voluntary up to a point. He does not fit the bill - economically a Thatcherite ultra, he nonetheless made unforgivable attacks on the efficacy of prison as justice minister, and - worst of all - is a copper-bottomed EU enthusiast (by Tory standards, at any rate). As somebody with highly lucrative commercial interests, he no doubt grasps fully what a British exit would mean.
Elsewhere, Philip Hammond has claimed the foreign office from William Hague, a step up from defence. He is a man whose Euroscepticism has not always been quietened by collective cabinet responsibility - last year, he was happy to echo the words of Michael Gove (of whom more anon) to the effect that if there was an in-out referendum on EU membership today on the basis of current treaty obligations, he would vote to leave. He was on more diplomatic form upon his promotion - “I don’t think the way to enter a negotiation is to start issuing threats,” he told the BBC. His refusal to disown his earlier remarks, however, can still be seen as a warning shot in the vague general direction of Brussels and Berlin.
Not that it will matter. If he remains in post after a hypothetical Tory victory next year, eyebrows will certainly be raised, and there are whispers of an already-planned job swap between himself and chancellor George Osborne in that case. This is a propaganda exercise - a modest sweet nothing for Tory voters switching to, or flirting with the UK Independence Party.
The other notable feature of the new arrivals is, precisely, their novelty. Of the four new cabinet ministers, two (Liz Truss and Nicky Morgan) won their seats at the last election; one (Stephen Crabb) in 2005; and the relatively seasoned Michael Fallon came in during 1997. On the way out, we have mentioned the veteran Clarke; William Hague has been demoted to leader of the house; and this is the first cabinet not to include a member of the Lords with a full ministerial portfolio for some time.
It is the triumph of innocence over experience - exactly the sort of cabinet an embattled party leader wants as he goes into an election fight. Reliable people; people who owe you their job; people unlikely to cause trouble.
And so to the big loser of the reshuffle - erstwhile education secretary Michael Gove. We must, at the outset, scotch one particular egregious stupidity that is being put about - that somehow, Gove’s departure is a success for the left. John Rees took immediately to Facebook to proclaim the demotion “a victory for social movement trade unionism”, in a ridiculous statement later to appear on Counterfire’s website:
It shows that a political campaign combining protest, street action, petitioning, marches and strikes can unseat the heir apparent of the Tory right. It’s a vindication of the strategy for which the People’s Assembly and the NUT and other unions have been arguing. No doubt NUT membership will increase as a result and, as everyone can see the confidence of activists in the movement has just risen a step or two.1
One encounters, as a Weekly Worker journalist, all manner of wilful self-deception and implausible claiming of credit for wider events coming from leftwing quarters. We have to say that this one really takes the cake. No, John, the People’s Assembly had nothing to with it - nor did the National Union of Teachers. Can anyone seriously imagine that a 15,000-strong march - if we’re being generous - which garnered almost zero media coverage, coupled with routine one-day walkouts from teachers, sufficiently put a scare into Cameron and Osborne that they ditched a cabinet minister over it? If it had, the pair have no business leading a Tory government; and, indeed, their government would have capsized years ago, in far choppier waters than it sails now.
Far from being defeated by his opponents, Gove is, in several ways, a victim of his own success. There is the matter of him rising to become, as Rees says, the “heir apparent of the Tory right” - a status he enjoys thanks to having been able to maintain an independent profile. This is partly a matter of his genuinely being a serious political figure in a cabinet jam-packed with cronies; and partly due to his former career at The Times, thanks to which he enjoys many media contacts and favourable press coverage.
He has also been staggeringly successful at pushing through his core agenda, of privatising schools and making them more amenable to reactionary, anti-secular education. Comprehensives have become academies one after another; correspondingly, pay and conditions for teachers have stagnated at best.
The corollary of that agenda was decimating local education authorities; which led ultimately to the ‘Trojan Horse’ farce, whereby a supposed plot was uncovered among Birmingham-based Islamists to take over schools. We remain unconvinced that this plot actually exists; but it nonetheless revealed that schools in the Gove era are prone to chaos and can be engulfed, at least, by petty grudges.
A public spat between Gove and home secretary Theresa May followed, concerning who was at fault for ‘extremism’ taking over British schools, which presented Cameron and his clique with a choice. Both Gove and May were touted as potential successors to Cameron, so demoting either would have made cynical sense.
Gove was directly in the frame at least partly because the Trojan Horse business was plainly a result of his agenda, not of home office ‘softness’ on Islamic extremism. Also, however, there was advice from Lynton Crosby: while previous education secretaries have been pretty uniformly hated by teachers, Gove - thanks, again, to his success - has managed to alienate broad swathes of the electorate with school-age children. He was no longer anybody’s idea of an asset. So he was demoted.
His replacement, Nicky Morgan, is hardly an improvement. She is a more-or-less loyal Cameroon, a hack, and a rightwing one at that - in a rare act of rebellion, she voted against Cameron’s gay marriage bill, citing the feelings of her constituents as a reason (as political cowards invariably do). Her promotion, like many of the others, is about patronage: the multiplication of yes-persons in the cabinet. We feel, oddly, that we will come to miss Gove, the Gramsci-quoting orphan Tory boy, someone who looks like his own Spitting image puppet. The Tory agenda of privatising and hammering education will continue regardless - just driven by a Westminster clone from here on in.
Will all this work? The immediate signs are not positive for Cameron: poll ratings have dipped, perhaps because - while the general drift is to the right - the high-profile scalps of Gove and environment secretary Owen Paterson (an appellation as ridiculous, perhaps, as ‘peace envoy Adolf Hitler’) have irked a lot of backbench grumblers and hysterical newspaper columnists.
It may yet pay off, as the campaign heats up - no doubt Crosby has dirty jobs in mind for the new faces, and plenty of tricks up his sleeve. No governing party has increased its majority at an election in post-war history; but nor has any been unseated by an opposition with mid-term poll ratings as lukewarm as Labour’s. A grubby, dispiriting campaign looms for all bourgeois parties. The left, as ever, will be nowhere.