Comment: A defensive reshuffle by a weak prime minister

Ian Dunt: 'Tory backbenchers' desires are incompatible with being in government'
Ian Dunt: 'Tory backbenchers' desires are incompatible with being in government'
Ian Dunt By

David Cameron threw so much red meat to his backbenchers today that Downing Street cleaners will be getting rid of the stench of it for weeks. "All the things I wanted to see have happened," the ghoulish, CBBC villain Peter Bone commented to the BBC. "I wanted to see Ken Clarke go, to see the party chairman [Sayeeda Warsi] go. So far, so good."

In the aftermath of the enthusiastic Tory rebellion over House of Lords reform, many commentators concluded the Tory party had become ungovernable. It was the glee of the rebellion as much as its size which startled observers. Cameron knows voters reject disunited parties, so he will have calculated that veering it away from the centre will be worth the price of disciplined backbenches.

And what a shift to the right he has executed. Ken Clarke, the first man to bring liberal ideas to the British justice system in a generation, has been replaced by Chris Grayling. Clarke is wrong about almost all economic issues and right about almost all other ones. Cameron has duly handed him a minister without portfolio role, with an economic brief. He will be reduced to yet another cuts defender, but held off the backbenches where he could become a thorn in the side of the leadership.

Grayling, or '50 shades of Grayling' as he's now known, is a more authoritarian figure. He backed bed and breakfast owners who wanted to refuse gay couples a room. He is viscerally eurosceptic and will happily help Cameron water down the Human Rights Act or negotiate with Strasbourg. He will team up with Theresa May at the Home Office on a 'tough on crime' approach to penal issues. He is not even a lawyer. Compare that to the moderate and wise legal expert Edward Garnier, who has been sacked as solicitor general.

Jeremy Hunt - discredited across Westminster for the sick-inducingly matey texts he shared with the Murdoch clan while supposedly acting in a quasi-judicial manner over their BSkyB bid - has been rewarded with a promotion to health secretary. Beyond his incompetence and incapacity for basic ethical conduct, he has also voted to lower the time limit for abortions. In 2007, he signed an early day motion promoting homeopathic medicine (magic water), although Downing Street claims he's grown out of that now. He will be replaced at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport by the stupendously boring Maria Miller.

Andrew Lansley spent nine years as shadow health secretary and health secretary. No-one knows what it was he was trying to do and even fewer people liked it. His attempt to sell a policy – a key component of a politicians' skill set – saw him drown himself and his audience in management-speak. He is one of the least competent speakers in the Commons. Cameron has duly given him the role of leader of the House, in which that is his primary duty. Sir George Young managed to effortlessly bat away problems with a bemused smile. His replacement has none of his qualities. He has, as far as I can tell, no qualities at all.

Sayeeda Warsi is a deeply conservative figure when it comes to religious affairs. She has spent a great deal of effort trying to dismantle Britain's secular approach to politics. On other issues, like immigration, her thinking is far more temperate. She teamed up with the Lib Dems, for instance, to stop Theresa May banning Brits earning under £40,000 bringing foreign spouses to the UK.

She was hated by the rank and file for her outspoken outbursts and, in my completely unsubstantiated opinion, probably out of residual prejudice. She has now been dropped in the Foreign Office, where she will perform relatively well, I think, but she also keeps her tragic faith brief, where she will continue to singularly misunderstand British society at home and abroad.

David Laws, a deeply right-wing Liberal Democrat who wants to cut public spending but sees no problem with a rich man misusing taxpayer money to further enrich his boyfriend, is being unceremoniously returned to government. He is being handed an education role but in reality he will be Clegg's adviser. It is an appalling decision. He should be denied a government job until his constituents have had a chance to throw him out. But it is a necessary one, because he is one of the few right-wing Lib Dems Cameron can use to pacify Clegg.

Cheryl Gillan and Justine Greening have become victims of their own principles with regards to transport projects, as the Tory party does a very slow U-turn on its Heathrow manifesto commitment – an act which will cost them leafy suburban London constituencies.
Grant Shapps was yesterday shown to have sold 'plagiarising' software which boosts online advertising revenue by scraping content from other websites. Today he was made Tory party chairman.

And to bring up the rear, Andrew Mitchell has been made chief whip – a definitive sign of Cameron's need to keep his backbenchers on side. The prime minister no longer runs his own party – the backbenchers do. His goal of keeping them onside is doomed to fail because their desires are incompatible with being in government. They want to jettison the Liberal Democrats, because they do not understand that they did not win a majority at the election. And their view of the Conservative party is so far to the right that they will make it unelectable.

Cameron was the Tories' main electoral asset for two reasons: he was presentable (a startling miracle in British politics) and he understood he could only win from the centre. Once he took power, NHS reform and spending cuts showed how far from the centre he really was. Today he even gave up pretending.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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