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Coffee House

How Cameron made ministers cry

5 September 2012

4:17 PM

5 September 2012

4:17 PM

David Cameron has always nurtured a deep dislike of reshuffles, and the last week won’t have helped. The result might strengthen the government; but the process was as ghastly as the Prime Minister expected. He sought to be gentlemanly about things, publicising the promoted while granting the demoted privacy. Even so, I understand, three ministers burst into tears in front of him when he was delivering the bad news. Lady Warsi was so cross about being stripped of the party chairmanship that she went home to Yorkshire and carried on negotiations from there.

Some ministers even succeeded in staying put when the Prime Minister would have liked them to move. On Monday afternoon, he asked Iain Duncan Smith to consider switching jobs. His work on welfare reform was done, IDS was told, and his views on rehabilitation could be put to good use in the Justice Department; though as a former leader, he was assured, the choice was his. In another era, a gentle suggestion from a Tory Prime Minister would have carried the status of a Papal Bull. Duncan Smith, however, took some time to consider and then informed Cameron’s chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, that he’d stay put. Then the Prime Minister phoned up, asking if it would make a difference if he expressed a preference for a shift to Justice. The answer was no.

But looking at the rest of the reshuffle, it is clear that Cameron now has more chance of governing successfully. Over the summer, his confidants say, he realised that he could be a one-term PM. This has created a much-needed sense of urgency in Downing Street. if changes aren’t made, ‘there’s a real prospect that this country could sink’, one No. 10 aide told me.

The reformist zeal can have a slightly ‘year zero’ quality to it. Justine Greening has been removed from Transport and sent to International Development for the offence of agreeing with her party’s manifesto about the prospect of a third runway at Heathrow. There is little sympathy for her in No. 10. ‘She’ll have plenty of time to think about -runways,’ one source told me, ‘as her flight to the next developing country circles the airport yet again.’

Another policy area where Cameron and Osborne are attempting to discard the excesses of Tory modernisation is on climate change. The new Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has views on global warming which meet with the approval of Lord -Lawson, who has done more than anyone else in this country to challenge the Stern consensus on the issue. A new, grittier approach can be seen at Justice, too. Ken Clarke has been replaced by Chris Grayling, a reformer but one who understands the electorate’s fear of crime, rather than blaming the tabloids for it.

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The real test of the reshuffle, though, will be whether it helps the government in its quest for economic growth. The initial evidence is promising. The promotion of Nick Boles, a determined advocate of planning reform, suggests that the Prime Minister really is up for another fight on the issue. And for good reason. The failures of the planning system threaten not only to impede economic growth, but to endanger the idea of Britain as a property-owning democracy — vital to hopes of a Tory majority. Boles, one of the original Cameroons, has always been acutely conscious of this.

There also appears to be a new willingness in Downing Street to push supply-side economic reforms. Two Tories renowned for a ‘take no prisoners’ approach, Michael Fallon and Matthew Hancock, have been sent to Vince Cable’s Business Department. They might, though, find less resistance than they are expecting. Cable’s main objective is a small business bank — and he knows, I’m told, that he’ll have to offer the Tories real progress on deregulation in return. The coalition remains in trade-off mode.

Perhaps, the most intriguing economic appointment, though, is in Michael Gove’s Department for Education. Liz Truss comes in as a junior minister with a ready-made agenda for deregulating childcare that just needs to be placed in the coalition’s policy microwave. Her ideas could make it profitable for many more women to go back to work. It is a great example of what Tory modernisation should be about: applying right-wing thinking to traditionally left-wing areas. It would also boost the Tories’ chances of wooing women at the next election.

The early promotion of Truss and three other female stars of the 2010 intake is part of Cameron and Osborne’s plan to ensure that there are women ready to serve on the frontline of the next election campaign. The party needs to be represented nationally by more than just southern, public school and Oxbridge chaps. One of the reasons that the Patrick McLoughlin, a former miner, has been moved from Chief Whip to Transport Secretary is that Cameron wants a working-class spokesman for the party.

The other reason was that McLoughlin was fed up with dealing with increasingly regular rebellions. Andrew Mitchell, his successor, has a formidable disciplinary task ahead of him. Over the summer, Cameron told one colleague: ‘My party has gone mad.’ This may be an exaggeration, but the party is undoubtedly more difficult to manage and more questioning of the Prime Minister’s authority. In an effort to break the cycle of rebellion, I understand that MPs will be informed they start afresh after the reshuffle: offences on past votes will be subject to a statute of ¬limitations.

Of course, much of the dissent among Tory MPs is down to the fact that this is a coalition, and the reshuffle couldn’t change that. Having appointed ministers to assuage his own party, Cameron needs to make sure that the government does not become deadlocked by the two parties blocking each other’s ¬initiatives.

There is one final niggle: the continuing loss of the Conservative’s party’s intellectual firepower. Nick Herbert, one of the most creative ministers, is following Cameron’s big ideas man Steve Hilton out of government. To lose one bold but temperamental radical may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Cameron will need to channel their sense of urgency if he really is to change Britain by 2015.

This is James Forsyth’s column from this week’s Spectator, which is out tomorrow. You can subscribe to The Spectator here.

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