Why the coalition can't and won't lurch to the right

The new cabinet remains bound by the terms of the Coalition Agreement.

New Conservative chairman Michael Green (otherwise known as Grant Shapps) insisted this morning that the reshuffle did not represent a "shift to the right" but, displaying an unusual degree of consensus, Fleet Street disagrees. The Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent all variously welcome or bemoan the reshuffle as a turn to the right. And it's not hard to see why. Liberal Tories such as Ken Clarke, George Young and Sayeeda Warsi have been sacked or demoted, while right-wingers such as Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson have been promoted. Further down the ministerial ranks, Tory attack-dog-in-chief Michael Fallon, and George Osborne's representative on earth, Matthew Hancock, have been dispatched to BIS to rein in Vince Cable, the man known among Tories as the "anti-business secretary".

But, in all likelihood, liberals are wrong to fear and conservatives wrong to hope for a shift to the right in policy. As the Prime Minister's spokesman said yesterday, "This is a reshuffle, it doesn't mean a change in government policy. It means different people in different jobs, but the policy remains the same." The government remains bound by the terms of the Coalition Agreement, so the fact, for instance, that the new Justice Secretay Chris Grayling once resolved to "tear up" the Human Rights Act is of little significance. The presence of the Liberal Democrats means he won't be able to. It will be as if Ken Clarke never left. Similarly, any new push for radical supply side reform, along the lines of that proposed by the Beecroft Report, will be vetoed by Cable et al. As the Lib Dems are briefing this morning, they won't allow "a phalanx of new right-wing policies".

Too many Tory MPs and commentators pretend to forget that this is a coalition government. As one Conservative cabinet minister recently told ConservativeHome: "The Lib Dems may only have one-sixth of the MPs, but without them we have no majority... They own 100% of the majority." For that reason, this is not now and never will be the full-blooded Conservative government that the right wishes to see. In order to change that, they need to win a majority first, a goal that Cameron, in his refusal to remove George Osborne and reverse direction on the economy (the biggest drag on the Tories' poll ratings), did little to advance yesterday.

Ken Clarke asleep (again) at the cricket yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era