When things get rough, especially in the area foreign policy, I have the distinct
feeling David Cameron asks himself the question “What would Tony do?” before he takes a big decision. But in the management of his Cabinet he can’t do that. Blair never had to
deal with coalition politics and did not have the equivalent of the Eurosceptic right to keep on board. Indeed, Blair would famously test a policy’s validity by how much it would annoy the
left of his party.
Liam Fox has gone now, and in the end it became impossible for him to stay. But in this slow political death, David Cameron did not follow Blair’s lead. New Labour reshuffles were a way of
cementing the Blair-Brown duumvirate in power and were a near-annual feature of the political landscape.
There was a moment last week when it looked like Cameron might brazen it out. It would have been interesting to see how the media would have reacted had Fox somehow managed to hang on. The sport of
modern journalism requires the taking of scalps, but politicians have to play ball.
The jury is out on whether David Cameron should have moved more quickly to remove Liam Fox. But his instinct is to trust his ministers and devolve power to government departments. Had the Prime
Minister moved with Blair-like speed it is unlikely that we would have ever known the extent of Werritty’s unofficial network.
Cameron will have learnt a bitter lesson from this crisis and he will be tempted to rethink his approach to Cabinet politics. There are two reasons why I think it unlikely that he will do so.
Firstly, he just does not have the strength in depth in the junior-ministerial talent pool to justify a series of reshuffles during his first term in office. But, more importantly, key members of
the government are personally associated with the reforms they have introduced: Gove at Education, Lansley at Health and Duncan Smith at Work and Pensions are virtually un-moveable.
This was never the case with Liam Fox, who ultimately proved unworthy of the Prime Minister’s loyalty. It is absurd to suggest — as some on the Tory right have tried to do —
that Liam Fox should still be in post. But in a time of deep uncertainty, Cameron is right not to demand a resignation at the first whiff of grapeshot.