Brian Monteith: Pointless reshuffle has dangers for Cameron

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What really is the point of a ministerial reshuffle? If we look at the one David Cameron conducted this week anyone would be hard pressed to conclude that it was to improve the governance of the country.

All too often in government, ministers are sacked for no apparent reason when they have only been in the job a year or so, others are promoted when they have had little experience or even interest in the brief they are given.

Meanwhile female MPs are promoted because they are, well, female. That’s not liberating, it’s patronising. Ex-public relations man David Cameron might think he has pulled off a PR coup by increasing the number of women in the Cabinet – but if it is believed to be nothing other than a manipulation of the media then it becomes a valueless empty gesture that everyone can see through. Its whole purpose becomes negated.

The reaction within and around the Westminster bubble was generally critical of Cameron’s promotions and demotions so it is hard to see what he has gained – other than to head off any criticism of the Tory Party for not having sufficient women ministers.

Only people fixated with the minutiae of Westminster politics could believe that would be a decisive issue to winning votes.

Of greater interest to us mere mortals is if a ministerial reshuffle is meant to result in a change in policy direction – but that is not clear from what appears to have been a badly handled fiasco that will have created more enemies, grudges and bitterness from those that he sacked, those that he passed over and those that he managed to insult along the way.

Two Scots are being portrayed as victims – Michael Gove, formerly the English Education Secretary, who has been shunted into the siding of Chief Whip – and Liam Fox, the former Defence Secretary who was touted as making a comeback to cabinet but was only offered a junior post at the ­Foreign Office that he held twenty years ago.

The idea was not even worth a phone call from the Prime Minister himself but came from one of his aides. Fox turned the offer down immediately.

For Gove, the greater problem is that although the Chief Whip is a supremely important role it is a monastic one – a highly able communicator now has a piece of duct tape across his lips. No more appearances on Newsnight or the various politics programmes.

In this regard the Prime Minister appears to have cut off his nose to spite his face – for he needs all the good communicators he can get – and all the more so in next year’s general election.

Meanwhile another Scot, Michael Fallon, becomes Defence Secretary. If the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015 I would not be surprised to see him end up in the Treasury.

Some analysts have tried to argue that Cameron’s Cabinet is now more eurosceptic and that this must make the likelihood of the UK staying in the European Union less likely. This is nothing more than wishful thinking or a Machiavellian double-bluff.

True, the arch-europhile Ken Clark has been sacked and William Hague has been replaced as Foreign Secretary (as he seeks to retire from elected politics) by Philip Hammond, who is reputed to have said he would vote for Britain leaving the EU if a referendum were held tomorrow. Nevertheless the loss of Owen Paterson as Environment Secretary tips the balance back in favour of those favouring submitting to the European project.

More puzzling still is the proposal of Lord Hill as Britain’s next nomination for European Commissioner. “Who is Lord Hill”, I hear you say, “and what does it matter?”

Hill began his career at the Conservative research department before becoming a special adviser to Ken Clarke. Following a spell in public relations he worked in the Number Ten Policy Unit serving as John Major’s Political Secretary during the negotiations over the Maastricht Treaty.

He went back into public relations as a lobbyist before being made a life peer by Cameron in 2010.

He has all the hallmarks of an emollient behind the scenes fixer but Global Britain, a leading business think tank, has been unable to find any evidence at all that Hill will follow even the mildest Eurosceptic agenda, let alone endorse the case for British exit from the EU if the promised re-
negotiations of our membership elicit no substantial changes.

Given that Hill has to have his nomination approved by the European Parliament – where its president Martin Schulz has already said he will push for rejection if Hill is too eurosceptic – and then has to renounce the UK and swear allegiance to the EU it is hard to see how he will be of great assistance to Cameron’s proposal to reform the European Union 
institutions or the UK’s relationship with them.

So with no practical or policy changes behind the reshuffle and just PR puff to make the government look good on gender equality, the reshuffle will be quickly forgotten. Maybe that’s exactly what Cameron wanted – but if he loses the general election he’ll thenhave more enemies than friends – and that’s not clever in politics.