Reshufflitis breaks out in Westminster

The prospect, however slim, of a cabinet vacancy releases a predictable surge of stored up speculati

So the Crown Prosecution has announced it will declare tomorrow morning whether or not Chris Huhne, Energy Secretary, will be charged in relation to allegations - steadfastly denied - that he persuaded his ex-wife to take speeding points on his behalf.

Huhne's statements on this have been unambiguous and robust, so if it turns out the CPS thinks there is a case to pursue he will be in trouble. A prosecution doesn't necessarily mean the man is guilty - he has the right to remain innocent until proven otherwise.

But the noises coming out of Downing Street and Lib Dem high command suggest a sword would quickly be offered for the Energy Secretary to fall upon. He could always use the old line of not wanting the whole business to be a distraction for the government, a position wholly consistent with protestations of innocence.

And indeed the CPS might well say there is insufficient evidence and Huhne can get on with his business (although there is no doubt he has been politically damaged by the accusations either way).

One reason why tomorrow's announcement is anticipated with inordinate excitement in Westminster is the high levels of pent up reshuffle energy. David Cameron has famously avoided swapping ministers between portfolios in the restless way that was Tony Blair's preferred management style. There were some movements and promotions when Liam Fox resigned last year but it was hardly a great re-ordering of the pack. There are good reasons why Cameron hates reshuffles. He wants ministers to actually master their briefs, which takes time. And he heads a coalition, which means a delicate balance of Lib Dems and Tories has to be maintained.

If Huhne has to go - and this is, I hasten to add, veering off a little prematurely into the realms of speculation - a vacancy would be created for David Laws to return to the cabinet, although it is uncertain he would want the Energy portfolio. There has been a fair amonunt of speculation that a lower ranking Lib Dem might up up for elevation. Edward Davey at the Business Department is often tipped for promotion.

But there is a feeling around government that it might, at last, be time for a more ambitious round of musical chairs. Crucially, anxiety about the passage and presentation of health reforms in Downing Street is approaching the status of panic. There is very little confidence left in Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, to explain to people what exactly it is he means to do to the NHS, let alone persuade them it is a good idea. Might a forced reshuffle provide an opportunity to put the Department of Health portfolio into a pair of hands somewhat safer than Lansley's have proved to be?

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

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear