The Prime Minister asserts his strength - and proves its limits

The reshuffle will successfully ease some pressure on Number 10. But not for long.

A government reshuffle has two purposes. First, it is an opportunity to remove ministers who are failing to perform their duties effectively and replace them with ones who might do better. Second, it is a chance for the Prime Minister to signal has political priorities and express the kind of character he wants his administration to have. The official line from the heart of government is that today’s realignment is very much about the former goal. The coalition is said to be moving into a tough phase of implementing complex policies across a range of portfolios and the PM puts a premium on managerial competence. As one senior aide puts it rather indelicately: “This is all about Cameron getting rid of bad ministers.”

Well, they are hardly going to say it is all about Cameron trying to shore up his position in a party that has acquired a dangerous appetite for rebellion. Nor will it ever be admitted that the noisy rearrangement of cabinet chairs is meant to symbolise seizure of the political initiative after the disorderly parade of crises that characterised the months running up to the summer recess. But that of course is a large part of it.

Still, there is no doubt that the need to facilitate implementation of tricky projects is the main motive. Justine Greening has been kicked out of the Department for Transport (she is now Secretary of State for International Development) largely because she has been implacably and vociferously opposed to the expansion of Heathrow airport. As an MP in a not-too-secure southwest London seat she could hardly be anything else. That doesn’t mean a third runway will be built – the Lib Dems still hate the idea – but it removes one obstacle.

The dismissal of Andrew Lansley from the Department of Health (to the mostly ceremonial job of Leader of the House) was considered a prerequisite to recouping any kind of support for the government’s controversial NHS reforms. The argument for keeping Lansley was that much of the political damage has already been sustained in the gruelling passage of the Health bill through parliament and Lansley is one of the very few people who actually understands the package. Surely, his allies said, he should now be allowed to see the project through. The counter-argument was that the furore around the bill was made needlessly vicious by the then Health Secretary’s famous inability to communicate his aims in public and his failure to reassure NHS staff that he did not have it in for them. Those shortcomings, if repeated in the painful implementation of the reforms, would cause endless agony for Number 10. That latter view prevailed.

Lansley’s replacement by Jeremy Hunt, formerly culture secretary, is one of the more eyebrow-raising elements of the reshuffle. Earlier this year, Hunt was fighting for his political life as Labour accused him of improper cosiness with News International and dereliction of a quasi-judicial duty to be impartial when overseeing Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions to increase his control over BSkyB. The Lib Dems withheld their support from Hunt in a parliamentary vote – a move that provoked fury on the Conservative benches.

Downing Street always stood by Hunt. That was partly because sacrificing him would have implied that there was something inherently dodgy about intimacy with the Murdoch clan – and that, for obvious reasons, is not a signal Cameron was eager to transmit. Besides, the view in Number 10 has always been that Murdoch-hunting, phone-hacking and the interminable spectacle of the Leveson inquiry are obsessions contained largely to the Westminster village. They are not seen as matters that weigh on the minds of most voters, so Hunt’s embroilment in them is not seen as a barrier to promotion. Hunt has another vital quality: he is a loyal Cameroon and generally well-liked in parliament. That is a rare combination, since the Prime Minister lacks allies beyond his very tight-knit circle of friends and advisors. Cameron needed a dependable and pliant loyalist in a key portfolio. Whether or not Hunt is capable of mastering his complex and combustible new brief is a subject open to speculation.

The imperative of effective policy delivery was also a reason why the Prime Minister, according to various reports, wanted to move Iain Duncan Smith from the Department for Work and Pensions. IDS is the architect – or more accurately, the chief ideologue – behind plans to overhaul the welfare system. There has been mounting concern for some time that the practical delivery side that project, especially the introduction of IT systems required to make it work, is imperilled. Meanwhile, George Osborne has his eye on welfare spending as a target for deeper cuts now that his original deficit-reduction plans have unravelled. IDS resists any more raids on his budget.

Cameron, encouraged by Osborne, is reported to have asked Duncan Smith to move on but he decline the invitation. So he stays at the DWP, presumably nurturing a deadly grievance against the Chancellor for having moved against him. Not one of the happier sub-plots of the reshuffle.

The one high-profile departure from the DWP is Chris Grayling, formerly employment secretary, who now becomes Justice Secretary – a job for which he had unsubtly lobbied Number 10. Grayling’s appointment is a clear nod to the right. He has advertised himself to that section of the party with noisy interventions against immigration and all things European. The stage is thereby set for a confrontation with the Lib Dems over Britain’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights and – my favourite flashpoint of obscure political geekery – the question of exercising the opt-in to the Justice and Home Affairs Pillar of the Lisbon Treaty due by 2014. (Too complicated to explain here, but trust me – it’s a potential coalition-wrecker.)

Concerns that Grayling’s authoritarian streak might sabotage the Justice Ministry’s interest in prisoner rehabilitation – as opposed to endless incarceration - are probably overstated. One preferred mechanism for dealing with serial re-offenders is “payment by results” model, using private sector providers to find gainful employment for people leaving prison. Presumably part of the thinking behind putting Grayling in MoJ is that he has already devised such a model as Employment Minister in the form of the Work Programme. That is seen as a policy success story in Downing Street. Others rather closer to the front line of the labour market depict it as a flimsy edifice of unworkable contracts, glaring gaps in accountability and G4S/Olympic-style out-sourcing fiascos waiting to happen.

Lib Dems will certainly lament Ken Clarke’s departure from Justice. His pro-European instincts and liberal views on penal policy made him a natural ally for Team Clegg, although that status was more symbolic than practical as far as I can tell. Clark stays in the cabinet with a mysterious roving brief that would appear, until there are reports to the contrary, to mean Semi-Retired Minister in Charge of Sounding Affable and Moderate on the Today Programme.

Another rather new-fangled role has been created for Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who will be a Foreign Office Minister also responsible for Faith and Communities, with a seat at cabinet. That looks like a package hastily cobbled together in compensation for having the role of party chair taken away. Warsi’s dismissal from that position was probably the single most important demand from MPs on the right of the party, without which the reshuffle would have been declared inadequate. Cameron’s acquiescence was inevitable, but hardly a sign of strength.

Warsi’s replacement is Grant Shapps, formerly Housing Minister, whose main virtues from Cameron’s point of view are vaunting ambition that still manifests itself in loyalty to Number 10, an eager pugnacity that suits the chairman’s tribal party duties and a fairly fluent media style.

The most significant development on the Lib Dem side of the government is the long-anticipated return to a ministerial post of David Laws. The former Treasury Chief Secretary who resigned weeks after the election over an expenses scandal replaces Sarah Teather as Minister of State for Children and Families at the Department for Education. This is an important portfolio for the Lib Dems who are keen to make early years intervention an important part of their claim to be addressing problems of social mobility (and want a bigger slice of the credit for what is widely seen inside government as Michael Gove’s successful education reforms). Laws is a big hitter who has been providing informal advice as part of Clegg’s inner circle. Teather, by contrast, was seen as ineffective in defending her policy turf. She was the subject of a pretty dedicated campaign of hostility by Tories who denounced her as a queasy lefty not sufficiently in command of her brief – although she enjoyed good relations with Gove. Besides, Teather has a tricky seat in North West London to defend against a very plausible Labour threat. She can now be licensed to go discreetly off-coalition message at a local level, as many Lib Dems will have to do to stay in parliament after the next election.

With Laws working alongside Gove, the DfE becomes a crucial coalition power ministry – a place where the two governing parties, their leaders hope, will be seen conspicuously working together on a radical and popular reform programme. That is all the more important since so many other areas of policy look headed for deadlock.

Those are some early thoughts on what has happened today. Doubtless vital developments have been omitted and there are surely coded messages in some junior appointments yet to be decrypted. It must also be said that the significance of the whole reshuffle is diminished when none of the most powerful offices of state – Home, Foreign, Treasury – change hands. The people running economic policy are the same as they were before. The balance of power between the two coalition parties is not drastically altered. The most persistent irritation to the Prime Minister – the noisy and disruptive discontent of his party’s right wing will be assuaged for a while by the sacrifice of Warsi and the promotion of Grayling. (Plus: one tier down the ranks, the appointment of Michael Fallon to be a hawkish Tory foil to Vince Cable at the Business Department will please many Conservatives.) But if recent history is a useful guide in these matters, the soothing balm will wear off pretty quickly. Tories who were angry and disillusioned with Cameron last week will be angry and disillusioned next week too. The structural flaws and mutual resentments that made coalition hard to manage in recent months will resurface in the months to come.

The government is reshuffled. The path ahead is no clearer.

 

Jeremy Hunt enters Number 10 to learn of his move to the Department of Health. Photograph: Getty Images

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

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.