Cameron reshuffles in bid to win back voters

Wed, Sep 5, 2012, 01:00

BRITISH PRIME minister David Cameron kept unpopular chancellor George Osborne in place in a reshuffle he hopes will revive his government’s fortunes halfway through a term dominated by recession and austerity.

Mr Cameron’s office billed his first cabinet rejig as a game-changer for a government finding it increasingly difficult to heal the economy, but heavyweights such as foreign secretary William Hague stayed put and few changes are expected in policy.

The prime minister’s scope for a sweeping overhaul is limited by the constraints of coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats and the danger of creating enemies among his own Conservatives at a delicate time.

“In some respects, the right of the party has been strengthened but it’s difficult to see it fundamentally changing the course of the government or its reputation,” said Wyn Grant, professor of politics at the University of Warwick.

“What it might do is to help unify the Conservatives in parliament. The crucial area is economic policy and the continued recession – if that turns around, that will benefit the government’s popularity more than a reshuffle.”

Mr Osborne, a close Cameron ally, was booed by crowds before he presented medals to Paralympics winners on Monday night, highlighting discontent with budget cuts that have repeatedly missed the government’s targets.

Polls show many Britons think Mr Osborne should be sacked. But replacing too many senior ministers could be interpreted as an admission of policy failure, particularly on the economy.

Shifting him would also raise questions on financial markets about Mr Cameron’s resolve in tackling Britain’s large budget deficit. The prime minister has stuck to his guns with austerity, hoping growth will return before the next election in 2015. The dire state of the economy forced Mr Cameron to at least tinker with his economic team, however, moving justice secretary Ken Clarke (72) – a former finance minister – to a floating role with an economics brief.

The Lib Dems’ David Laws, another respected economic brain, was brought in to a ministerial job, with a junior portfolio at the education ministry and a roving economics brief.

That was the only significant change for the Lib Dems, with business minister Vince Cable and Mr Osborne’s number two, Danny Alexander, among those keeping their senior cabinet positions.

The reshuffle is being seen more as an exercise in improving Mr Cameron’s relationship with his own party, which is starting to fear for its chances of re-election.

Figures from the Conservative right were promoted and concessions made to a rebellious “Eurosceptic” wing that demands a tougher line on Brussels.

Mr Clarke’s move, in effect a demotion for one of the most outspoken pro-Europe Conservatives, was cheered by the Eurosceptic flank. “The end of the coalition would have been the ideal reshuffle but, compared to where I thought we would be today, we are in a very much stronger position – you can see the Conservativeness of this government,” said Tory MP Peter Bone.

Mr Clarke said the prime minister was “not remotely” bowing to pressure to push his part of the government to the right.

The biggest promotion came for former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, who took over what he called the “huge task” of selling controversial plans for reforms at the health ministry to a sceptical public and medical profession.

Mr Hunt survived calls to quit this year for his handling of Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to take over British broadcaster BSkyB.

Mr Cameron switched Justine Greening from transport to international development, removing her from the debate over whether the government should build a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport, bitterly opposed by residents in her constituency.

The move reignited speculation that a third runway – which the coalition has pledged to reject – could be on the cards. – (Reuters)

New NI Secretary Theresa Villiers succeeds Owen Paterson

Newly appointed Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers, a former transport minister, said she looked forward to working with the Northern Executive, political parties and the community to build a “stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland for everyone”.

Ms Villiers, the 44-year-old MP for Chipping Barnet in England, replaces Owen Paterson whom British prime minister David Cameron promoted to environment minister.

Ms Villiers, a qualified barrister and former MEP, adverted to the rioting in north Belfast in her first statement. “Huge progress has been made in Northern Ireland over recent years. As the headlines in the past few days demonstrate, however, we still have some way to go if we are to overcome the divisions in society and build a genuinely shared future,” she said.

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt wished Mr Paterson well in his new post and hoped that Ms Villiers would carry on his efforts to have corporation tax in Northern Ireland reduced to levels similar to the Republic.

She said: “I am acutely conscious of the need to continue our efforts to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy”.

Ms Villiers added that the British government would “maintain the utmost pressure on those who resort to terrorism and violence to pursue their objectives”.

Mike Penning, MP for Hemel Hempstead, was appointed a junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office. GERRY MORIARTY