Reshuffle digested: Cameron in retreat and Osborne in ascent

David Cameron and George Osborne in the House of Commons (Photo: PA)

So out with the old, in with the new? Not quite. Cameron, above all else, is a political animal, driven by pragmatism and ambition. So, whilst it did come as a shock that his pal Gove was demoted to Chief Whip Hand of the King (a worrying insight into Cameron’s mind if there ever was one), you can’t deny the pragmatism in benching the most hated part of the government less than a year before an election.

Indeed, the decision to put Education in Nicky Morgan’s hands, rather than the more obvious choice of former Education junior minister Liz Truss, suggests that Cameron (or rather, Lynton Crosby) knows that Gove’s reforms are not a winner with the electorate and that picking fights with teachers, as Gove and Truss are both wont to do, is not smart politics when campaigning is about to start. Although there’s no indication of backtracking on Gove’s reforms, the need to parachute a caretaker minister to soothe the NUT’s rage and quell the bad press can be viewed as an admission of failure of the education reforms, similar to Hunt’s move to Health after Andrew Lansley’s hideously awful Health and Social Care Act had already passed.The other big reformer of Cameron’s government, Iain Duncan Smith, lives to fight another day but given the gross stagnation of Universal Credit plans and Osborne’s disdain towards him, one can only view his survival as a weak attempt to not seem to completely throw in the towel. In fact, the transparency of Cameron’s cynical ploy makes the move look rather desperate.

Clearly Cameron has put the business of government on the backburner and is going all guns blazing into campaigning. The feminist in me is always happy to see more women in positions of power but I would be more enthused were it not for the fact that the women have been brought in when’s there’s nothing for them to do. The Tories have run out of policies for this term and if they did manage to get into government for a second term it is highly likely that there would be another reshuffle, restoring Gove to his Education fiefdom. For now, all Cameron wants from his oestrogen-fuelled Cabinet is to appear on TV, stay well clear of controversy and brim with competency. Beyond the abilities of many in Parliament, I’m sure, but hardly a win for the sisterhood is it? Presentation is an inevitable part of politics but No 10’s briefing about the “reshuffle for women” was so demonstrably patronising, turning the promotion of women into one big “calm down, dear” to his critics, that it could have only come from the mind of someone who has no idea what true equality and representation looks like.

Whilst the reshuffle exposed Cameron as on the back foot, weakly giving in to criticisms over his overly male, Etonian Cabinet and sacking his friend and lead reformer, Osborne is arguably the biggest winner of this reshuffle. Many of the new entries into the Cabinet, such as Nicky Morgan, Priti Patel and Matthew Hancock (along with Sajid Javid, having been promoted earlier this year) are Osborne’s former acolytes from the Treasury. They mark not only a generational shift amongst Conservatives but also an ideological one, having been raised on Thatcherism and, along with Osborne, being fervently right-wing in their love of the free-market in a way that Cameron never has been.

Osborne is clearly laying the groundwork for a leadership bid for whenever Cameron gets shunted out. Gove may be put out by his demotion but undoubtedly Osborne is aware of how useful having an ally in the Whip’s office will be when the time comes to gather parliamentary support to become leader. Indeed, the promotion of his allies, along with the briefing that he fancies a spell at the Foreign Office once the election’s over, clearly paves the way for Osborne, world statesman and Prime Minister in the making. God help us all…