by GK Strategy 25th October, 2013

Reshuffle brings surprises as party leaders raise their game

The close of conference season 2013 was closely followed by the widely anticipated reshuffle of the Government and Opposition benches.

First to announce its new and improved line-up was the Coalition, which has resisted the constant rejigging favoured by previous governments in an effort to bring stability and focus on long term objectives, resulting in only one previous reshuffle since it formed in May 2010. Aversion to change for change’s sake is understandable for a government that can face as much opposition internally as from the other side of the chamber, and this may help to explain why the reshuffle was limited to more junior Ministerial posts, despite speculation of Cabinet-level machinations.

There are two primary purposes of reshuffles – firstly, to reward competence and loyalty amongst MPs, the latter unarguably prevailing, and secondly, to position key figures strategically. The conflict between these two can result in some surprising outcomes.

Whilst speculation is rife, the outcomes of a reshuffle are a very closely guarded secret until their announcement, although given the favour bestowed upon George Osborne’s parliamentary allies, it is clear that he remains very much the trusted right hand man of David Cameron, and intended heir to the throne. His former Chief of Staff, Matt Hancock, was appointed Minister of State at Business, Innovation and Skills and Education, and Greg Hands, his former Parliamentary Private Secretary, will exert considerable influence on the wider party through his new role as Deputy Chief Whip.

A number of the Conservative promotions were reserved for those who aren’t part of Cameron’s usual “Chipping Norton set”, such as Esther McVey, a Liverpudlian former GMTV-presenter, and Sajid Javid, the son of Pakistani immigrants, and this left the Prime Minister vulnerable to accusations of tokenism. However, such suggestions not only fail to acknowledge the merits of those MPs, but also ignore the distinctly underwhelming performance of those whose removal cleared the way for their progression, such as Mark Prisk, the elusive former Minister for Housing, and Mark Hoban, who presided over the dismally unsuccessful Work Capability Assessment.

Reshuffles are also an opportunity to realign where policy issues sit, offering clear indications of the direction the government is taking, and the priority it gives to specific areas. The sudden lack of a Minister of State at Defra has disheartened many, but it does not come as much of a surprise, given the hammering the Department has taken in budgetary terms since the Coalition came to power.

Meanwhile, changes in the front bench line up for the Liberal Democrats threw up even more surprises, including the sacking of Michael Moore, the successful and widely respected former Secretary of State for Scotland, in favour of Alistair Carmichael, a more adversarial operator who Clegg and Cameron obviously believe has the muscle to secure the continued membership of Scotland in the UK by securing a ‘no’ vote in next autumn’s referendum on Scottish independence.

The sacking of Jeremy Browne, formerly Minister of State for the Home Office, has however been met with even greater surprise, not least because of the startling news of his usurper,- the renegade Norman Baker. Whilst Browne was widely considered to have failed in his efforts to keep Home Secretary Theresa May in check, particularly following the debacle around the “go home” vans this summer, his close relationship to Nick Clegg and the admiration in which the Tories held Browne were expected to keep him safe. Clegg will be well aware that the Tories have long been making overtures to Browne, who holds the coveted target seat of Taunton Deane, but it must be believed that he is confident that his friend will not be tempted to defect. His replacement by Norman Baker appears to be a concession to the many Lib Dem members who have been stricken by the party’s failure to stem the increasingly anti-Liberal agenda being led within the Home Office.

Whilst Baker’s liberal credibility remains strong, his profile has been harmed by media portrayal of him as a loony anti-conspiracist in the wake of his investigations into the death of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, quite the contrary to the steely and unemotional May. It therefore appears quite a gamble for Clegg to have taken, especially when other liberal-minded candidates such as Tom Brake, who has ministerial experience and is a former spokesman for Home Affairs, could have been selected for the post.

Which begs the question, why Baker? Some commentators have posited that Baker’s installation, without the courtesy of any prior notice being given to May could have been a display of strength on Cameron’s part. However, May, another prospective candidate for the Conservative leadership, is notoriously protective of her legacy at the Department, and if the success of her tenure and consequently her credibility within the party is threatened by the introduction of a difficult Minister, a reaction should be expected. Perhaps Clegg’s decision was a calculated move to draw her out.

On Cameron’s part, he may have had the same expectation, albeit for May to be either damaged or smoked out prematurely instead. But with the phone hacking trials due to commence shortly, he may not be in a position of strength for much longer. The question in that case may become whether the Osbornites he has so recently favoured are a source of support, or another enemy within.

Across on the opposition benches, much has been made of the cull of the Blairites and the rise of the Brownites. Labour’s removal of Jim Murphy, Stephen Twigg and Liam Byrne from the opposition frontbenches has been suggested by some commentators as a victory for Len McCluskey, who has previously called for their scalps, but the changes can perhaps more reasonably be attributed to a desire to bring new blood up the ranks. Miliband has promoted a number of 2010 intake MPs, eschewing experience in favour of new talent, and ensuring the newest Labour MPs known on which side their bread is buttered.

Diane Abbott’s removal is a further display of Miliband’s determination to build loyalty in his ranks. Her media profile is no use to Miliband if she won’t stick to the party message, and keeping her would’ve sent the wrong message to other renegades. As a bonus, Abbott is likely to be just as effective against the government from the backbenches, if not more so.

Miliband has achieved the remarkable feat of going from a distant wonk without the policies into a bold and assertive statesmen setting the terms of the debate. The shadow cabinet can now believe they have a potential Prime Minster in their midst. Expect to see a sudden increase in overt displays of loyalty from previously distant members of the frontbench. Miliband has shown that he intends to, and has the capacity, to set the terms of the debate, and labour MPs will be queuing up to feature in the scene he’s setting. However, there remains a thorn in his side in the guise of Ed Balls. Keeping his enemies close, particularly Balls, given his inextricable link to the deregulation of the banking sector that beset the financial crisis, could have a toxic effect on a party trying to distance itself from the economic sins of its fathers, hamstringing Miliband on the issue over which the election will be fought – the cost of living.

With almost 20 months to go until the next general election, it’s inevitable that further rearrangement of the Government and opposition furniture will follow in due course, most likely when the junior and shadow Ministers have had a chance to settle in to their new posts, in order to provide the continuity, and consequent credibility, for which both sides strive. But with the phone hacking trials shortly to commence, and the energy debate raging on, there is everything to play for in the coming months.

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