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.