Cameron's reshuffle is even more hazardous than before

The PM has accidentally stoked vast expectations.

Shortly before everyone in Westminster started talking obsessively about House of Lords reform, they talked obsessively about the likely outcome of David Cameron’s first big cabinet reshuffle. (Sometimes the obsessive talk in Westminster is about things that have a direct impact on people’s lives – the things voters care about. But not as often as they ought.)

Happily for the obsessives, the themes of Lords reform and reshuffle have now effectively merged. There was always speculation that Cameron was delaying making any new government appointments until after the Lords vote, so as to dangle the prospect of promotion and the threat of blackballing in front of potential rebels. If so, it didn’t work out too well as an incentive scheme.

Jesse Norman, the rebel chief, has often been tipped for a ministerial gig of some kind. He has been close to the Cameroons. He quite literally wrote the book on the "big society". He’s clever, politically astute and very ambitious. It should be of some concern to No.10 that he chose to deploy his talents in the service of rebellion rather that government. (The PM is reported to have expressed what might euphemistically be called his disappointment in a moment of finger-jabbing exasperation after Tuesday night’s vote.) Norman, it must be said, is a sincere and erudite enthusiast for all matters Conservative and constitutional. His action against what he saw as an attempt to bodge the upper chamber of parliament was driven by a particular passion, not some cynical discovery of coalition-baiting as sport.

Still, it would be impossible for Cameron to promote him; likewise Nadim Zarhawi, a formerly ultra-loyal MP from the 2010 intake, thought to be a eligible for a first rung on the government ladder, who also rebelled on Tuesday night.

Cameron’s authority in the party is too low for him to be seen to be rewarding flagrant insubordination. Two junior ministerial aides – Conor Burns and Angie Bray – have already lost their jobs over the rebellion; the former jumping the latter pushed. And while officially the Lib Dems have no say in who the PM appoints on his side of the coalition, dispensing favours to the Lords saboteurs would be an extraordinary affront.

It now seems certain – as indeed it has for a while – that the reshuffle will come in autumn. Cameron will want the summer to get some perspective on the turbulent politics of the first half of the year and to think about his strategy for what will, whether he likes it or not, be judged as a re-launch. Chiefly he has to decide whether the emphasis will be on “Modernisation 2.0” – a renewal in some form of plan to change people’s perceptions of what the party stands for and whom it represents or on a more “Authentic Conservative” platform – stressing traditional themes to fire up the base.

Of course, Downing Street aides insist you can do both and that the choice is a false one, but certain signals will inevitably be sent by the decisions about who is appointed to what jobs. Putting Chris Grayling in charge of, say, the Home Office - a job he once shadowed and for which he unsubtly auditions whenever he appears in public - would tilt conspicuously to the right. Finding some modest ministerial niche for Nick Boles – a liberal Cameroon ultra and old friend of the PM – would be a nod to the old modernisation agenda. And then, of course, there are the dilemmas that have lingered around for so long they feel almost stale, but remain problematic: what to do with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and party chair Sayeeda Warsi – two cabinet members who have been the target of ferocious campaigns, one from the opposition, the other from inside the Tory ranks.

The list could go on. Everyone has their pet theory and gossip of dubious origin about the scale, timing and likely content of the reshuffle. A problem for Cameron is that, having left it so long before re-jigging his team, he has accidentally stoked vast expectations. There are too many factions and individuals to be satisfied and the strategic political challenge is too big to be met by a round of musical chairs. The PM finds himself in political air traffic control, with some many ambitious figures - jumbo-sized egos - circling overhead and only a little bit of runway space on which to bring them safely in to land. Far from re-launching the whole project, he will be lucky to pull it off without accident.

David Cameron is set to carry out his first cabinet reshuffle this autumn. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle