So what was the point of David Cameron’s supposedly dramatic cabinet reshuffle last week? Forget the idea that it was about advancing women over the “pale, male, and stale”.
The “catwalk” of promoted women ministers outside 10 Downing Street was pretty degrading, and the gender balance of the cabinet has only changed marginally.
Theresa May remains the most powerful woman in government. She is using the Home Office to strengthen her credentials with Eurosceptic backbenchers to prepare for the day when she makes her leadership bid.
Then there is the story that Cameron was proving how strong and ruthless a prime minister he is by purging right and left. The most dramatic bit of news in the reshuffle—the demotion of his supposed friend Michael Gove—is sometimes cited as evidence of Cameron’s ruthlessness.
But Cameron’s tough-guy image is contradicted by the 10 Downing Street briefing that Gove was removed as education secretary because he is “toxic” in the opinion polls.
Andrew Rawnsley told the following anecdote in last Sunday’s Observer.
“Some months ago, David Cameron asked Nick Clegg why the Lib Dems were so eager to get into high-profile fights with Mr Gove. ‘Because all our polling says the public hates him,’ responded Mr Clegg. The prime minister sighed and grimaced, ‘So does all our polling.’”
Sidelining Gove because of his unpopularity is a sign not so much of ruthlessness as of weakness.
Last week Gove was, in a semi-delusional way, presenting himself as one of the architects of the reshuffle along with Cameron and George Osborne.
But it’s clear that his demotion has infuriated the Tory right for whom he was an ideological standard-bearer. He’s also well connected to the Murdoch media empire, which may help explain why he was given the consolation prize of chief whip.
As it is Owen Paterson, who was sacked as environment secretary, has been ranting in the Telegraph about being driven from office by “the Green Blob”, by which he means environmental lobbyists.
They, unreasonably enough, objected to having someone who doesn’t believe that climate change is happening in charge of environmental policy. The case of Paterson reminds us that the Tory party has largely lost connection with reality, and is being driven by ultra-Thatcherite ideologising. That’s why someone as daft as Gove is so popular on the backbenches.
This isn’t just a British phenomenon. There was an interesting piece in the Financial Times on Monday of last week documenting how fed up US big business is with a Republican Party dominated by the crackpots of the Tea Party.
In the British case the issue is Europe. The banks and corporations that dominate the British economy have not the slightest interest in Britain leaving the European Union (EU).
But Cameron has just appointed a foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, who immediately repeated his earlier statement that he would vote to leave the EU in a future referendum unless British membership was renegotiated.
Cameron says he wants Britain to stay in the EU, so it’s astonishing he promoted Hammond to the Foreign Office. He also sacked Ken Clarke, the last real pro-European in the cabinet, and Dominic Grieve, who as attorney general was blocking May’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights.
These moves are also signs of Cameron’s weakness. He likes being prime minister, and consistently kowtows to his right wing in the hope of remaining in office.
Despite Gove’s demotion and the sacking of Paterson, the logic of the reshuffle is further to strengthen the anti-EU right. But Cameron has proved incapable of delivering on the right’s demands in Brussels.
Having failed to block Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, he’ll probably also fail to get a decent job for the deeply obscure Lord Hill, whom he nominated as Britain’s European Commissioner. Every step Cameron takes pushes Britain closer to EU exit.