David Cameron speaks during a news conference in Downing Street on June 19, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The reshuffle prepared the Tories for battle. But what does Cameron stand for beyond a desire to win?

It is less clear than ever what the Prime Minister would do with another five years in office.

In ten months’ time, David Cameron’s political career could be over before he has reached his 50th birthday. Defeat to Ed Miliband, for whom he has never disguised his contempt, would consign him to the wilderness to which he so ruthlessly despatched the Conservatives’ “male, pale and stale” ministers.

The overriding aim of his government reshuffle was to prevent this outcome. Every decision, made in meticulous consultation with Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ campaign manager, and George Osborne, the party’s chief election strategist, was taken with one question in mind: “Will it help us win?”

It was this remorseless logic that explained the unforeseen demotion of Michael Gove. The political price of keeping the former education secretary in place, charted by opinion polls and Crosby’s focus groups, had grown too great for the coalition’s Robespierre to survive the Great Terror. With Gove’s reforms enshrined in law, Cameron felt liberated to replace him with the emollient Nicky Morgan, who is judged more capable of converting the unfaithful. The response from Labour was a vindication of his judgement. “It’s a blow to us,” one opposition strategist told me. “We could have celebrated Gove’s departure on 8 May 2015,” a shadow cabinet minister said. Lucy Powell, the shadow childcare minister, lamented that Labour had lost “a fantastic recruitment tool”.

Gove’s appointment as Chief Whip and as “minister for the Today programme” (after his deft on-air response to Maria Miller’s resignation as culture secretary in April) was the clearest example of the defining stratagem of the reshuffle: the subordination of governing to campaigning. In advance of the long war with Labour, it was judged that he would be of more use putting out fires than starting them.

Like an emperor recalling his generals from distant colonies, the Prime Minister has gathered his best men at central command. William Hague will no longer travel the world as foreign secretary but prowl Westminster as Leader of the House of Commons and as an all-purpose deputy to Cameron. A senior campaign role for the Yorkshireman is regarded by Tory strategists as one way of reaching those northern and Midlands voters left cold by the Prime Minister.

Far in advance, the reshuffle was trailed as an act of symbolic detoxification. Cameron is painfully aware of the need for his party to appear more representative of Britain than he does: less posh, less male and less white. But even judged in these narrow terms, the changes were underwhelming. The long-touted “rise of the women” led to just two more (Morgan and Liz Truss) ascending to full cabinet rank. When the chance came to appoint the UK’s first-ever female defence secretary, or its second-ever female foreign secretary, women were passed over in favour of the male, pale and somewhat stale Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon. To a public that recognises few politicians beyond the Prime Minister and his most senior colleagues, the face of the Conservative Party will look much the same as it did before.

The focus on cosmetic refinement confirmed the abandonment of one of the central insights of Tory modernisation: the need to change the soul of the party, not merely its appearance. The new Conservatives recognised that a party that had strayed far from the centre ground could not dare to dream of a majority. The problem was not simply one of style but one of substance.

From Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson they absorbed the lesson that modernisation was a process, not an event. As David Willetts, one of the moderate Tories to depart the government, told a Bright Blue conference in 2012: “[It] is not something peripheral. It is not a job you do once and then stop. It is a continuous process of ensuring that we do not lose touch with the nation we represent.” But whether through a loss of nerve or a lack of sincerity, Cameron allowed the project to stall. That he is now engaged in another mission to change the style of his party is precisely because the substance has changed so little.

Under Cameron, who once aspired to neutralise the European question, the defining fault line is no longer between Europhiles and Eurosceptics but between those who would vote to remain in the EU and those who would vote to leave (including, based on the current terms, Philip Hammond). A pre-election truce has been secured at the cost of guaranteeing an in/out referendum that Cameron never wanted and, indeed, voted against.

Rather than Macmillanite pragmatism, much of the 2010 intake espouses the doctrinaire liberalism of the free-market right. Shortly before the end of her prime ministership in 1990, Margaret Thatcher declared: “Do not say it is time for something else! Thatcherism is not for a decade. It is for centuries!” It is a sentiment with which many of the Tory intake of 2010 would concur. By contrast, beyond the dry technocracy of deficit reduction and a self-destructive war over Europe, it is unclear what the purpose of another five years of Cameronism, let alone a century, would be.

“This wasn’t Cameron’s last reshuffle, it was Lynton’s [Crosby] first,” one Conservative MP told me. Under the aegis of the Australian strategist, the previously shambolic Conservative Party is being moulded into a disciplined war machine that Tory MPs believe is capable of routing Labour next May. Optimists on the Tory side and pessimists on the Labour side maintain that “the fundamentals” – economic competence and political leadership – favour the Conservatives. But as he and his new cabinet approach the battlefield, the Prime Minister should ask himself what he now stands for, other than a desire to win. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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