Cameron reshuffle aims to woo women and middle-ground voters

Departure of Michael Gove from education delights teaching unions

Demotion of education secretary Michael Gove to the position of chief whip could be part of a longer game. Photograph:  Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Demotion of education secretary Michael Gove to the position of chief whip could be part of a longer game. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Wed, Jul 16, 2014, 01:00

British prime minister David Cameron, in the biggest reshuffle of his ministers a year out from the general election, aims to woo female and middle- ground opinion.

The biggest casualty – for now, at least – is education secretary Michael Gove, who has become the most unpopular Conservative in Britain because of his abrasive, often confrontational style.

Mr Gove’s demotion to chief whip, given his closesness to the prime minister, could be part of a longer game, however, since he, Mr Cameron and William Hague, who stood down as foreign secretary, will run the Conservatives’ election campaign next year.

His departure was greeted with open glee by teaching unions, who hated his policy of parent-run free schools, greater rigour in curriculums and more control by Whitehall rather than by local authorities.

“Although it will be a surprise it will be a very pleasant one for lots and lots of teachers just before the end of term,” said Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers.

More women have been brought into cabinet – Liz Truss goes to environment to replace Owen Paterson, who previously served as Northern Ireland Secretary, while Nicky Morgan replaces Michael Gove. Theresa Villiers, Mr Paterson’s successor in Stormont, has survived, despite a lacklustre performance. She survived largely because Mr Cameron felt he could not sack her because of his need for women ministers.

The Eurosceptic influence in the cabinet, reduced by Mr Paterson’s exit, has, however, been strengthened by the transfer of Philip Hammond from defence to the foreign office.

Mr Hammond made soothing noises yesterday despite a previous declaration that he could envisage the UK out of the European Union. He said he was confident that UK- demanded reforms would be supported by other states.

The departure of Mr Hague – once an arch-Eurosceptic but one who mellowed significantly while in the foreign office – Ken Clarke and attorney general Dominic Grieve weakens those who want the UK to stay in the EU. Mr Grieve, in particular, strongly opposed demands by Conservative MPs that the UK quit the European Convention on Human Rights – a demand that will intensify now he is gone. Mr Cameron had wanted to go even further to placate his Eurosceptic MPs by bringing back former defence secretary Liam Fox, who had to resign over a scandal involving an aide. Mr Cameron offered Mr Fox a place as minister of state in the foreign office, but Mr Fox – offended at the idea that he should serve under the man who replaced him in defence – rejected it.

Jonathan Hill, who was up to yesterday the Tory leader of the House of Lords, has been nominated as the UK’s next European commissioner. He has pointedly expressed his belief that the UK’s place lies within the EU, not outside it. Mr Hill had rejected the job three times, but Mr Cameron’s desire to avoid a byelection, given the threat posed by the UK Independence Party, doomed the prospects of other candidates.