Cabinet reshuffles and looming election wipeouts


The Coalition Cabinet in the early days of 2010 before the axe started to fall. © The Daily Telegraph

Giving a speech at the 2009 EU elections results night, Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan delivered an eye catching plea for Gordon Brown to resign and call a general election. He had allegedly lost the ‘moral mandate’ and Hannan highlighted the farce of the political situation at the time by quoting popular children’s poet, Dr Seuss.

Three years on from this time when the strong, confident Conservatives were looking down their noses with glee as Labour slowly unravelled from within you cannot help but be amused by the irony of the upcoming, unprovoked cabinet reshuffle that is expected in the coming weeks. Or indeed, the news that the Liberal Democrat power base could be wiped out at the next election.

Every day the news seems to report another body blow to the Coalition as the Conservatives are still languishing eight points behind Labour  and the Liberal Democrats are even further behind on a paltry 10 points, only two points ahead of the UK Independence Party. According to YouGov (where the figures come from) if the election was held today Labour would win with a majority of 96.

To make the situation worse, the government has given up the pretence that they all still get along as George Osborne and Nick Clegg lock horns over Clegg’s comments to the Guardian that the rich should pay more tax.

With this government stuck in the quagmire less than halfway through its parliamentary term, its no wonder that the public mood is at dangerously low levels. David Cameron has to act now to break the spell and restore what little faith the country still has in him.

This reshuffle is designed as a shot in the arm for Cameron’s government; to root out naysayers and saboteurs and get the Coalition back on to track to Cameron’s grand plan: getting a majority in 2015.

Of course, the difficulty in this that Cameron is being torn in different directions by three groups with conflicting aims, none of are particularly interested in whether he gets to keep his job.

Cameron’s decision to shelve House of Lords reform may have been a concession to restore party unity but the result is this current deadlock. To friend and foe alike it made him look weak; it was a betrayal of the promises to the people and the Coalition partners that got them into this increasingly kamikaze government in the first place and to his enemies among the backbench of his own party.

Backbenchers have been grumbling over Cameron’s untraditional (for a Conservative) stance on Europe and gay marriage and are unhappy with the party entering into a coalition in the first place. Now that conference season is upon us, rising stars are looking to make their mark on the party and the press with headline grabbing speeches and the respective parties will be looking to consolidate with a policy agenda for the coming year.

Therefore now is the time for Cameron to quell the opposition to his agenda, or indeed his leadership. When he kowtowed to the backbench over Lords reform he demonstrated that he would back down if the party dug their heels in hard enough. Meanwhile MPs like Brian Binley are telling Cameron to mend relationships within the Tory party and stop behaving as the ‘Chambermaid’ for the Liberal Democrats and remind them who the senior partner in the Coalition is.

He is under increasing pressure to promote more right wing members to the Front Bench and get rid of some of the more unpopular figures; Justice Secretary Ken Clarke is reportedly facing the chop despite his claims that he is ‘totally laid back’ about the pending reshuffle. However, regardless of the change to the ideological line up of the Conservative side of the bench, Cameron is honour bound by the terms of the coalition agreement to keep five Liberal Democrats in the cabinet. So Business Secretary and Liberal Democrat hero, Vince Cable and  Minister for Scotland Danny Alexander look set to keep their jobs.

The Liberal Democrats have very different concerns when it comes to this reshuffle. Contrary to backbench opinion, the public feel there is little or no discernible yellow influence on the blue cabinet and that Clegg and his cronies simply decided to sell the young, the old and the ‘squeezed middle’ down the river in order to get a name in the political history books and possible a seat in the House of Lords one day.

Nearly every single one of the causes Nick Clegg championed when he gave the David Cameron the keys to number 10 have been dismantled or postponed and nearly every Lib Dem is getting restless. Since the defeat of Lords Reform, Clegg has declared open season on any and all Conservative policies he doesn’t like, including threatening to sabotage boundary change plans and criticising the Tory’s supposedly lenient tax policy. He needs to prove to his party (and the public) that he still has a backbone to prevent electoral ruin at the election. This uphill battle means he will continue to be a thorn in Cameron’s side and will not allowed his more popular ministers, like Cable, to feel the weight of the axe.

Then the third, and most important, group that Cameron needs to placate are the voters. When the election was held in May 2010 people (if not a majority of people) believed that if the Conservatives could cut the gross overspending by Labour, the economy would right itself and the country could go back to dancing on clouds and rainbows again. Fast forward two years and the economy has actually got worse now that we are in a double dip recession and the ‘deficit reducing’ government had to borrow money to plug a deficit in a month that is normally always supposed to run a surplus. Understandably the people are angry as they are losing their jobs and the props designed to support them when they do are being kicked out from under them. Meanwhile the Conservatives ring fence the rights of corporations and wealthy individuals such as their (politically foolish) announcement that they were going to criminalise squatting when thousands are already facing losing their homes.

One causality of reshuffle that is frequently called for his Chancellor, George Osborne. Having lost the support of several economists who had backed his deficit reduction plan at the beginning of his term, Osborne is increasingly becoming the target for people’s dissatisfaction with the state of the economy and his personal approval ratings have dipped lower than supposed Public Enemy Number One, Nick Clegg.

However, as Cameron’s best friend in government, Osborne is likely to survive. He may be the face of the ideology but Cameron is as much an architect of the economy as he is and there would be little gain from his removal. Whilst approval may take a slight upswing if he were replaced with the favourite, Vince Cable, it would not be worth the resulting destruction of Cameron’s power base within the party. Furthermore, Cable’s appointment may create a small respite for the economy as increased confidence in the Chancellor begets increased confidence in the economy which in turn begets growth; it is unlikely to have much long term effect if Cable is forced to pursue the same or similar policies to Osborne.

The whole situation is a political deadlock and it will be interesting to see if Cameron can get out of it, or at the very least keep his party together. Whatever happens in the long term public opinion is unlikely to be rosy. We can only wonder if any Labour MEP will be quoting Dr Seuss at Cameron come the European elections in 2014.

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Published by

Caroline Mortimer @CJMortimer

Freelance journalist.

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