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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There is nothing Donald Trump can do to stop immigration

The story of American immigration has been flowing inexorably in one direction. Even Trump's 24/7 tweeting can't turn the tide.

On 20 January 2009, it seemed that America had crossed the racial Rubicon. The simple fact of a non-white face behind a podium saying “president of the United States” would assure Barack Obama a place in the history books and begin a new chapter in the nation’s saga.

In January 2017, things look very different. Donald Trump won the election for many reasons, but one of them was surely a “whitelash” against a black president. Millions of Americans are not comfortable with “a person of colour” as their head of state and commander-in-chief. Some are racist; others enjoy some racist banter at the bar; many more just draw a colour line in the privacy of their hearts. Trump’s nominations to cabinet posts have included only a few non-whites, and these look like tokenism. His attitude to multiculturalism is paraded on donaldjtrump.com. At the top of his ten-point plan to “make America great again” is the pledge: “Begin working on an impenetrable physical wall on the southern border, on day one. Mexico will pay for the wall.”

Will Trump’s whitelash supporters be appeased? I doubt it. Judged against the longue durée of American history, it is Trump who is rowing against the tide – a tide of migration that has gradually eroded the dominance over American life and politics of those of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) stock. Nothing he can do will change that. Not the wall. Not the banning of Islamic immigrants. Not the deportation of “undesirables”. Not even 24/7 tweets. The Donald cannot turn back the Tide.

The story of American immigration has been flowing inexorably in one direction, despite periodic ebbs. The Trump whitelash is the latest of those ebbs. Here are a few snapshots from the past.

In the 1850s, the “Mexicans” of that era were Catholics, fleeing economic depression in Ireland and southern Germany and washing up in big cities such as New York and Chicago. The backlash against them took the form of the American Party, whose members had to be both native-born Protestants and the offspring of Protestant parents. Campaigning against “rum and Romanism”, the American Party demanded strict temperance laws and a ban on Catholics holding public office because of their “thraldom” to the pope. The party had a meteoric rise and fall, quickly eclipsed by the North-South divide over slavery, but anti-papism took time to fade. It was another century before the US elected its first Catholic president: John F Kennedy.

By 1900, the “threat” to American purity was posed by the “New Immigrants” from Italy, the Balkans and the Russian empire who did not look or sound like “Anglo-Saxons” from Britain, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia. In the peak year of 1907, 1.3 million migrants were admitted, 80 per cent from southern and eastern Europe. “The floodgates are open,” railed one New York newspaper. “The sewer is choked. The scum of immigration is viscerating upon our shores.” It was time to drain the swamp.

The Wasp-dominated Immigration Restriction League campaigned for the “exclusion of elements unsuitable for citizenship or injurious to national character”. Its rhetoric was often overtly racist. In 1896, the Boston economist Francis A Walker blamed creeping globalisation in the form of railroads and steamships for creating what he termed “pipeline immigration”. “So broad and smooth is the channel that there is no reason why every foul and stagnant pool of population in Europe, which no breath of intellectual or industrial life has stirred for ages, should not be decanted upon our soil” – dumping in America those he called “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence”.

The wartime crusade for “100 per cent Americanism”, together with the 1919 “Red Scare” against communists and anarchists, finally closed the open door. In 1921 and 1924, Congress slashed migration from Europe to 150,000 a year and imposed quotas based on the proportion of nationalities in the census of 1890, thereby targeting the New Immigrants. Some congressmen made the case in explicitly racist terms, among them Senator Ellison Smith of South Carolina, who declared: “I think we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure, unadulterated American citizenship,” formed of “pure Anglo-Saxon stock”. This was the way to make America great.

It was not until 1965 that a new Immigration Act abolished national quotas. At the time, President Lyndon B Johnson played down the law’s significance. It would not, he said, “reshape the structure of our daily lives” but merely correct “a cruel and enduring wrong”. LBJ assumed that the beneficiaries would be people from southern and eastern Europe, the main victims of the 1920s quotas, and he did not anticipate a flood of migrants. Yet in the half-century since 1965, there has been a sustained surge of immigration. Whereas in the 1960s and 1970s, “foreign-born” represented only 5 per cent of the US population, in the 2010 census, the figure was 13 per cent – close to the peak of almost 15 per cent in 1920.

What’s more – and again contrary to Johnson’s expectations – the migratory surge came not from Europe but from Asia and, especially, Latin America. By 2010, 16.3 per cent of the US population of 309 million was identified as Hispanic or Latino, two-thirds of which was Mexican in origin. More than four million Mexicans entered the US legally in the decade from 2000 – equivalent to the total from the whole of Asia. Hence the political appeal of “build a wall”.

African Americans constitute the second largest minority group in the US, at 13 per cent. Most are the descendants of forced migrants in the 17th and 18th centuries: slavery was the “original sin” from which the land of liberty had been conceived. Even after emancipation during the Civil War, blacks remained second-class citizens, enduring segregation in the South and discrimination in jobs, housing and education in the urban North. It was Johnson again who unlocked the door: his Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964-65 finally applied federal power to overcome states’ rights.

In doing so, however, LBJ triggered a realignment that pushed much of the previously solid Democratic South into the Republican camp. Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968 signalled a sustained if coded use of the race card by Republicans to woo the silent majority of disenchanted whites – carried on more recently by the Tea Party and Trump.

Hispanics and blacks – now nearly 30 per cent of the US population – have literally changed the face of America. Barack Obama incarnates the new look, being African American but of an exotic sort: the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas; born in Hawaii; raised there and then in Indonesia; and trained at Harvard Law School. As he said in 2008, “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”

Perhaps in no other country is Trump’s story also possible. Yet it is Obama who has history on his side. The US Census Bureau has projected that whites, who made up two-thirds of the population in 2008, will constitute less than half the total well before 2050 – outnumbered by Hispanics, blacks, Asians and other non-white minority groups with higher birth rates. However, by mid-century, the great divide between white and non-white that has colour-coded US history will probably have become meaningless because of intermarriage. “Obama is 2050,” declared the demographer William H Frey: “Multiracial. Multi-ethnic.”

Governing such a diverse country – even holding it together – will be an immense challenge. The vicious 2016 election prefigured many more culture wars ahead. In the long run, however, Obama – not Trump – is the face of America’s future. Some see that as a sign of degeneration. “Perhaps this is the first instance in which those with their pants up are going to get caught by those with their pants down,” fumed the anti-immigration campaigner John Tanton. But earlier nativists said the same, warning that supposed “lesser breeds” such as “Negroes”, the Irish or Italians were out-breeding their “betters”. Those with greater faith in America’s tradition of painful adaptability might see the country’s growing demographic diversity as signalling not the decline of the Great Republic but another of its epic transformations.

David Reynolds is the author of “America: Empire of Liberty” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era