The vast majority of the commentary around this reshuffle has focused on the individuals involved. With William Hague announcing his intention to leave politics after the General Election and Ken Clarke stepping down from Government – a combined total of 70 years as sitting MPs – allied to the surprise demotion of Michael Gove, this is understandable.
But what does this reshuffle say about the direction of travel both for the Coalition and for Conservative politics in the run up to the General Election? Firstly, it tells us that David Cameron is determined to show a more modern and inclusive side of Conservatism to voters, with the promotion of a number of successful female ministers. Nicky Morgan and Elizabeth Truss, in particular, have proved highly capable in their previous briefs and will add significant firepower at both Education and DEFRA. The stats don’t offer parity, but they do offer progress, 26 per cent of the Cabinet are now women and if you take out the Liberal Democrats from those numbers the proportion rises to 33 per cent. Secondly, this reshuffle is about reinvigorating the Cabinet, with the promotion of a new generation of Ministers 10 months ahead of the General Election.
In wider moves, the PM has offered us the interesting juxtaposition of Philip Hammond, a self-confessed Eurosceptic as Foreign Secretary, whilst the moderately europhile Lord Hill will (EU Parliamentary approval-pending) take the UK’s Commission post in Brussels. With those changes in place, the ongoing balancing act that is the UK’s relationship with the EU is going to be hardwired in. The crucial question now will be whether Hill has the political weight to secure the vital economic post that Cameron wants. While not a household name, and perhaps regretting his comments last month about not wanting the post, Lord Hill is viewed as an effective and experienced political operator who should find his footing in Brussels quickly.
Back in the domestic sphere, the PM has clearly tacked to the Conservative heartlands with his mid- ranking Ministerial choices. Promotions for Claire Perry and Matt Hancock might, as suspected, speak more to the ambitions of the PM’s neighbour, but those for Priti Patel and Anna Soubry seem designed to appease the right of the Party and fire up the activist base. Trusted Ministers who cut through to the public are also rewarded, hence Mike Penning and John Hayes are off to bolster their Secretaries of State in justice, home affairs and transport.
Much is also conveyed by the moves that have not happened. In that regard clearly the Chancellor did not feel that now was his time to head to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which perhaps speaks to his confidence that there is still more credit to be gained from the economic recovery. But if the Conservatives win, George Osborne certainly wants to lead a UK renegotiation at the EU table. So is Hammond a stop gap?
Iain Duncan Smith will now certainly see out his reforms – but will face enormous political pressure to ensure the successful delivery of the Universal Credit. Meanwhile, Michael Gove’s move to Chief Whip is being spun as a sideways shift at worst, but is clearly a demotion following the negative headlines he has attracted over the past months.
Will these changes really affect the outcome of the General Election? At a time when the majority of voters can only recognise a handful of Cabinet Ministers the short answer is no. But this is all about repositioning and trying to make the Conservative part of the Coalition looks more like modern Britain.
However, it does confirm the rapid progress of the 2010 intake into the heart of Government. It also confirms something that Westminster sometimes forgets, that this Prime Minister is not afraid to make major changes when necessary. How successful these changes have been will only become clear in the summer of 2015, when David Cameron will hope to be repeating this process yet again.
We now await a shuffle from the Liberal Democrat side of the Coalition. And from Labour too. But not quite yet it seems.
Forward by Tom Frackowiak, Executive Director of Public Affairs, Cicero Group.
Please click here to download the full Cicero Group analysis of the reshuffle.