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Coffee House General Election 2017

Forget Michael Gove or the rise of the Remainers. The reshuffle is about the march of the moderates

Michael Gove will get all the headlines, and there is something darkly ironic about his appointment. Theresa May may be fighting for her political life, but even her 11th hour manoeuvres have a sharp edge. She’s been forced to bring back a man she sacked, but her choice of job is lovely: Michael Gove of the Leave campaign now gets to tell British farmers how life will be better when farm subsidies end.

Meanwhile, Gove replaces Andrea Leadsom, another Leaver, who as Commons leader now gets to oversee the speeding legislative freight train that is the Great Repeal Bill, not to mention seven or eight other bits of Brexit legislation – all without a Commons majority.  In short, Mrs May is repeating the gambit of her first Cabinet making last year: she’s making the Brexiteers own Brexit. So yes, she’s weak, but she’s playing her poor hand with a bit verve.

But for me, the important story of the non-shuffle is the continuation of another theme of May’s pre-election approach: the march of the moderates.  Damian Green is now de facto deputy prime minister. David Lidington, possibly the nicest man in politics, is now justice secretary. David Gauke gets DWP while Greg Clark and Justine Greening keep their jobs (the latter, despite much pre-election expectation that Liz Truss would get education, and now free not to set up new grammar schools). No 10 is now overseen by Gavin Barwell, the ousted housing minister who returns as chief of staff. All were Remainers and might be powerful advocates for a much softer form of Brexit than May has previously signalled. 

But their stance on Brexit is less important and interesting than their broader political outlook. All are the sort of sensible, centrist Tories who would support the sort of agenda set out in, yes, the Conservative Party manifesto all those weeks ago. The manifesto that rejected ‘untrammelled free markets’ and committed the party to helping younger, poorer people, even at the expense of older, richer ones.

Yes, that manifesto and its authors are now reviled as electoral arsenic, but guess what? May is sticking with that same agenda, the one she first set out in that fine speech on the Downing Street step what now seems like a lifetime ago. In her – slightly painful – TV interviews about her new (old) ministerial team, she pointedly returned to those burning injustices: poor mental health provision and a broken housing market in particular. Her aim was to cast her government as about more than Brexit – social justice and a fair economy matter just as much.

Of course, I’m biased, since I run a centrist think-tank committed to fair markets, but I reckon that’s the right response to a general election where Jeremy Corbyn took Labour to 40pc of the vote. He may still have lost (though his fans haven’t noticed) but he raised some questions about the way British politics and economics work for many people. As I wrote last week, the Tories should be listening carefully to the answer some voters gave to those questions.

That doesn’t mean adopting the Labour manifesto or agenda wholesale, but it does mean accepting that some of the complaints that drove people to vote Corbyn are legitimate. Since the election there’s been a tendency among some Conservative supporters to deride Corbyn voters as naive idiots who want ‘freebies’ from the state. This should go without saying, but calling voters stupid is a good way to lose at politics. Better to listen. Angry young Corbyn voters have things to be angry about:

And May’s ministerial team are the sort of people who might be inclined to listen to the election result and the feelings behind it, even if that takes the government in directions that more right-wing Tories feel uncomfortable about. Perhaps that will mean an industrial strategy that sees the state take a greater role in some markets. Or lessening the severity of the welfare sanctions regime. Or an approach to education and social mobility that favours poor kids and their schools and FE colleges more than the private schools and universities their richer peers go to. (Gove isn’t all about Brexit, incidentally, and if he can range outside his brief, I’d expect him to support an approach that aimed to do more for the dispossessed.)

Of course, May’s position remains desperately weak so her intentions may yet be academic. But her words and her ministerial choices show she’s still intent on the moderate, centrist Toryism that is her party’s best chance of weathering the storm and seeing off Corbyn. 

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