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What does David Cameron's reshuffle tell us about his assessment of the Government's position?

Huw EvansWhile the Westminster Village loves the drama of a ministerial reshuffle I find them more interesting for what they reveal about the PM’s state of mind. As one of the few areas of undiluted Prime Ministerial power, they can reveal a lot more about a Prime Minister’s political strategy, sensitivities and situation than any number of tedious Sunday morning set piece interviews. 

So what does David Cameron’s reshuffle tell us about his view of the Government? 

Firstly that he intends the Government to stick to his main delivery objectives; economic recovery coupled with meaningful public service reform - but he realises it needs to do it a lot better. Hence, big names staying put but with able junior ministers inserted into Treasury, the Home Office, Education, Business and Welfare. With Health, he decided the only way to ensure that reform is implemented is to have a new Secretary of State to do it. This is about an alliance of continuity and competence; a managerial response from the Government’s CEO to the U-turns, cock-ups and lack of political sensitivity which have eaten into the Conservatives’ poll ratings. 

Perhaps just as importantly, David Cameron is now focused on the task of reframing Conservative policy ready for the 2015 manifesto. Articulating what a Conservative majority Government would do after 2015 is increasingly the Prime Minister’s device of choice for reminding the electorate that the Conservative party and the Coalition Government are two different beasts. The script on just what the modern Conservative party stands for has been constantly shifting since David Cameron became leader, not least because his party contains such a broad church of views. This reshuffle tells us he now thinks he will have to fight it from a more right of centre position on transport, environment, justice and health than he did in 2010.

With a premium on competence in the junior ministerial appointments has also come an emphasis on good communicators. Oddly for a former PR professional, David Cameron has been slow to accept how poorly the Government has been getting its message across. With the promotion of aggressive higher order batsmen like Grant Shapps and Michael Fallon and newly promoted media-confident junior ministers like Matthew Hancock, Nick Boles, Esther McVey and Anna Soubry, No 10 has more strength in depth for the comms battles it will need to win. 

Finally, this reshuffle reinforces the central power of George Osborne over both people and policy. The Chancellor now has a key ally as Chief Whip, a trusted minister, Mark Hoban as Welfare Reform Minister to drive savings from IDS’s plans, a new Transport Secretary who will stop blocking airport expansion and two ministers in the Business Department to keep tabs on Vince Cable and promote pro-business policies. With two heavyweight appointments to his own team, Olympics chief Paul Deighton and Greg Clark as City Minister, the Chancellor has every reason to feel he has reshaped the Government in a way that fits his strategy. 

Overall, while some Westminister pundits have characterised the lack of big name changes as timid, from an insurance industry perspective this feels like a major reshuffle with significant ministerial changes across the board in areas important to the industry. With a new Financial Secretary, Greg Clark and fresh ministers covering areas such as flooding, civil justice reform, long term care, corporate governance, road safety and riots, there will be a significant challenge for the industry to re-engage and make its case. 

So this reshuffle tells us about the PM’s appetite for competence, communication and Conservatism, probably in that order (and at the expense of promoting senior women). It is an appetite shared by his Chancellor who continues to shape the strategy and people of the Government to a considerable degree.  To me, this looks like the reshuffle of a Prime Minister who has paid attention to the detail of his junior appointments, worrying that he could be a one term PM if his Government doesn’t change for the better. For a Prime Minister who hates reshuffles, David Cameron has put a lot of thought into this one but he will need some form of economic recovery rather than just better ministers to turn around his electoral fortunes.

Last updated 29/06/2016