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

Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.