Westminster backbenchers happy campers as they shuffle off for their summer holidays
London letter: with calm restored in the Conservative Party, David Cameron has put off a planned reshuffle
David Cameron during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons this week. “Reshuffles please a few, but from Cameron’s point of view . . . they are dangerous.” Photograph: PA
David Cameron has spent a lot of time in the rose garden of 10 Downing Street recently, where receptions have been moved outdoors to take advantage of the heatwave.
This week, House of Commons journalists were amongst the guests. More importantly, however, Conservative MPs enjoyed a hog roast there recently and the prime minister played chef.
Just a few months ago the Conservatives were a ferment of unhappiness, with rumour upon rumour circulating in the corridors of the Commons that MPs ready to demand a leadership vote were just a few signatures away from the finishing line.
Today, Labour is on the defensive on a number of fronts. Islamist hate cleric Abu Qatada has finally been banished – sent back to Jordan; crime figures are down 9 per cent; unemployment has dropped; and the economy shows a few signs of coming back to life.
Meanwhile, the previously relentless rise in opinion poll support for the UK Independence Party has waned, even if temporarily, while Cameron’s offer of a 2017 referendum on European Union membership has neutralised the debate on that issue, sort of, for some of his MPs.
With the good news, talk of a leadership challenge against the prime minister – which was never particularly coherent and sometimes bordered upon the reckless, with serious speculation taking place about unknown MPs – has dissipated.
Now, his backbenchers are ready to quit the Commons until September 2nd, some, no doubt, to farm their constituencies for support, while others will take advantage of a summer free of constituents’ woes.
By the standards that rule in the often fractious world of politics, they leave in relatively contented mood – so much so that Cameron has decided not to go ahead with a planned reshuffle this side of the recess.
He has never liked reshuffles, believing far too many occurred, leaving ministers unable to get a grip of their portfolios before they were sacked or moved. However, the principal reason for delay now is that the troops are happy.
Reshuffles please a few but from Cameron’s point of view – as has been the case for leaders before him – they are dangerous, because they create more enemies than allies. The evicted will harbour grudges, while some of the promoted will feel they should have gone higher and those excluded will ensure their wounds remain a constant burning sore.
A few ministers will be glad of Cameron’s decision to hold off but for some it merely delays the inevitable, since changes – following his holiday in Scotland, no doubt deliberately chosen with next year’s referendum in mind – will occur later.
Some of those sacrificed will be unfairly chosen. For example, David Willetts, better known as “Two Brains” because of the scale of his intellect, is said to be facing the loss of his job as minister of state in charge of universities. By common consent Willetts has done well but that is not enough. He is included in a group of junior ministers who have become known as “the innocents”, ready for slaughter because they are never likely to ascend to cabinet.
Last month, the Commons political and constitutional reform committee praised Cameron for “the comparative restraint” he has shown, saying reshuffles should never take place “simply because it is assumed there should be one”.
During Labour’s time Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown had six defence secretaries, eight trade and industry secretaries, eight business secretaries and six home secretaries, three in four years.
During a briefing for the committee, Peter Riddell of the Institute for Government pointed out that Germany has had 15 ministers in charge of business policy since 1949 whereas the UK has had 35.
Changing of the guard
He brought up the subject of reshuffles with a German delegation who called to the institute’s Carlton Gardens home, but they “did not understand what on earth we were talking about”, he told MPs.
Reshuffles usually change little. Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood said: “I don’t think they generally make that much difference because usually the policy of the government is pretty settled.
“It can make a difference to the way policy is presented and . . . at the margin it can change particular priorities . . . I would say the role of reshuffles on the drift of policy can be exaggerated.”
Exaggerated or not, Cameron will have to deal with a changing of the guard on his return, since political imperatives mean he must begin to promote some of the rapaciously ambitious MPs who arrived in 2010.