‘There’s no shame in a cabinet to win the next election,’ declared an exasperated senior No. 10 figure on Tuesday night. This week’s reshuffle was not one for the purists: it was designed with campaigning, not governing, in mind. With less than ten months to go to polling day, politics trumps policy. This is why Michael Gove is moving from the Department for Education to become Chief Whip. The test of this shake-up will be whether the Tories win the next election or not.
This reshuffle demonstrated that Tory modernisation is not about measures anymore but men — and women. The party has spent most of David Cameron’s leadership trying to draw up policies to show it understands modern Britain and that it is not just the political wing of the privileged few. These efforts have had some success, but not enough. It still trails Labour by double digits on the issue of fairness and who is ‘on the side of people like me’.
This gap helps to explain the reshuffle’s emphasis on promoting those who don’t look like typical Tories — hence the promotions for women and those with working-class backgrounds. As one senior source said after the reshuffle, ‘The agenda stays the same but the government looks much more like the people we want to vote for it.’
The biggest surprise of this reshuffle was Gove’s new job. For years his education reform agenda has been central to the Cameron project. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have often lavished praise on him, but Gove has now been shuffled out.
No. 10 is at pains to argue that this isn’t a demotion, that Gove will have huge influence as Chief Whip. They are equally quick to stress that the Gove agenda will continue. They say that the new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has been given clear orders not to let up on reform. They argue that if they were going to retreat they wouldn’t have sent Nick Gibb, one of the architects of this agenda, back to the department along with Gove’s dear friend and intellectual ally Nick Boles.
But how Gove was moved sheds some light on what is really happening. Cameron has been mulling this change since late last year. I understand that Gove has been aware for some time that he would be shuffled in this way, but it took a lot of time and persuasion to make him accept the move. But the Prime Minister insisted: he wanted to demonstrate to his party and the country his willingness to sacrifice even his closest friends to the electorate.
Gove’s reluctance to move was understandable. He has always been a subscriber to the Steve Hilton view that the Tories should govern as if they had only one term to enact all the changes they want. But his departure from the Department for Education means that he misses out on eight months in which he could have consolidated his reforms.
Those close to him justify the shift on the grounds that the best way to embed his reforms is for the Tories to win the next election. They argue that if Gove going to Downing Street makes that more likely, then it is worth doing.
Quite what role Gove will play at the centre remains to be seen. At the moment, he appears to be a political version of the domestiques that you see in the Tour de France, the cyclists whose job it is to help the team leader to win. The sense is that Gove will play a similar role to the one he does in Cameron’s PMQs prep, constantly sending out options for Cameron to pick from. Several of the bolder moves in the reshuffle originated with him.
Those who know Cameron’s No. 10 predict that Gove will quickly become one of the most influential figures there. His presence and his intellect will make him the first port of call for those in Downing Street with a problem that needs solving.
Gove’s moment of greatest importance will come if the next general election produces another hung parliament. As Chief Whip, his view will be critical in determining whether the Tories should try to form another coalition with the Liberal Democrats or attempt some form of minority government. One of those inside No. 10 who backed his appointment believes that it makes the latter course far more likely.
The danger of shifting Gove, though, is that it suggests that Cameron will retreat in the face of opposition from vested interests. This problem has been compounded by Owen Paterson’s departure from Environment. Paterson had incurred the wrath of environmentalists for his enthusiasm for shale gas, his scepticism about green taxes and his appreciation that nature has to be managed. Moving him suggests that if you shout loud enough, you can get Downing Street to back down.
Paterson’s departure also creates problems for Cameron’s internal coalition management. Paterson spoke to parts of the Tory tribe that Downing Street struggles to reach. The danger is that his sacking will be taken by them as another insult. The reshuffle has also alienated Liam Fox, who did not appreciate being offered a job that he first did years before Cameron was an MP.
In policy terms, though, the most important move of this reshuffle was the removal of Dominic Grieve as Attorney General. With Grieve gone, the path is now clear for the Tories to propose withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
There were also some impressive personnel promoted. Liz Truss, the new Environment Secretary, is a proper Gladstonian Liberal, committed to liberty and efficiency. The new Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has the wisdom one would expect of someone who first entered the house in 1983, but combines it with the enthusiasm and the work rate of a new MP. While Nicky Morgan must be impressive to have overcome Downing Street’s instinctive suspicion of those whose Christianity has an evangelical edge to it.
One aspect of Cameron’s character that is underestimated is how competitive he is. The Prime Minister is a proud man who hates nothing more than the idea of losing to Ed Miliband. His decision to hire the strategist Lynton Crosby, and to accept his advice, was an early sign of what he is prepared to do to win. This reshuffle is another.