By John Charles Dyer, UK Correspondent
4 Sep 2012. The Prime Minister began a much ballyhooed "major reshuffle" of his team.
Oh the Excitement
The Press was “on it.” They had - for days prior to the release of any information - sliced and diced the deck into multiple configurations in an orgy of speculation. Both the PR literate PM and the Press strove to best the other at pumping up and cresting the buzz. The excitement was (and remains) palpable. Pundits race to “explain” what it all does or does not mean and to distinguish themselves with their own special "take" on it all.
But the Para Olympic medal ceremonies provided perhaps the most prescient comment of the day concerning the state of British politics.
The 80,000 strong crowd roundly booed Chancellor and Tory Party chief strategist George Osborne as the Committee announced his name to present medals to the winners. For Americans wanting to assess the credibility of a Ryanesque "Plan" two years in (and British readers just wanting to enjoy it all over again), YouTube captures the moment here.
For Americans, and I dare say some British readers, I suggest the booing may be a better reflection than BBC commentary concerning the efficacy of government policy in general, and the changes to the NHS and welfare specifically.
What's it all about, Alfie?
It is premature to evaluate much concerning what, if any, effect the reshuffle will have on the operation, policy, or political fortunes of Coalition partners.
The changes were visible if downplayed.
Andrew "Take No Hostages" Mitchell, a key Cameron ally, moves from the International Development brief to Chief Whip. Some believe this move an effort to shore up fragmenting Tory Party discipline.
Long time Tory elder, Ken Clarke, moves from Justice Secretary to vague Cabinet Minister in charge of huffing and puffing the economy (somehow). The position may be more than face saving.
Chris Grayling, beloved to Telegraph readers, despised by the poor, the vulnerable, the disabled, and anyone who cares about their well being, replaces Clarke at Justice. BBC reports Cameron preferred Ian Duncan Smith, the Welfare Secretary, wanting Grayling to take the Welfare brief. Smith refused. Cameron was either unwilling or unable to force Smith. But both Smith and Grayling are right wing and Eurosceptic. Clarke is pragmatic and Euro-friendly, a senior minister who has seen it all and may recognize the scent of what he's shoveling.
Baroness Warsi, co-leader of the Tory Party under Cameron’s “kinder/gentler,” more inclusive Tory model, leaves that position for a vague role as "deputy" to Foreign Secretary Hague. Andrew Lansley, the controversial architect of Cameron’s “not privatization” privatization of the NHS moves from Health into the "very important" (and therefore not) House Leader role. Clear and visible demotions.
Jeremy Hunt replaces Lansley, despite Hunt's rickety status following revelations of questionable communications with Rupert Murdoch’s team concerning the Sky take-over bid. His appointment may be the biggest surprise of the exercise. It appears the Prime Minister hopes Hunt's "nice guy" style will disarm professionals critical of NHS reform. Good luck with that, Jeremy. It may be the fate you deserve.
I believe the most important change immediately apparent is the appointment of Grant Shapps as Tory Party Chair in the place of Warsi. He is a key Cameron ally. He is also a strategist, potential relief for Osborne. Osborne struggles to wear the two hats of Chancellor and strategist. Shapps can provide relief without threat. It is possible (colour me skeptical) Clarke's appointment may also help relieve the embattled Chancellor.
The spin on these changes is, Cameron wants “better communicators," not policy change. BBC opines the moves are more political problem solving than signals of change.
Perhaps, but that is what they would say, isn’t it.
Nevertheless Cameron has already managed to signal possible changes on a controversial 3d runway at Heathrow or the lost Virgin Rail contract by moving Justine Greening from Transportation to International Development. Governments don't often trumpet changes in approach necessitated by political or policy short sightedness, especially if the base loves the faulty approach. And in PR dominated culture, communicating policy and changing it sometimes bleed into each other.
We won’t really know for some time what, if any, changes may take place under the cover of rhetoric. Both moderation of draconian policies and the converse are possible, both because the new faces at the old brief may not have the same bees in their bonnet and because the strategists see the popularity or unpopularity of those policies.
Perhaps the most significant implication of the reshuffle is that it happened at all.
Cameron has been throughout his leadership reshuffle adverse, uncommon in a British leader. The fact that he has done one now indicates how unpopular his government is. The discouraged public can perhaps take some solace in this awareness, even if discouraged by specific appointments (Grayling and Hunt for example).
Too little too late
Whatever changes come with the new faces, it is probably too little too late to rescue Tories and Liberal Democrats for the next general election.
We cannot presume the PM's reshuffle will be any better received than his last budget. London's Tory Mayor, Boris Johnson, immediately reacted negatively to the replacement of Justine Greening. Minority groups expressed concern over the demotion of Warsi. Chris Grayling and Jeremy Hunt will galvanize many in the public from "I don't know" to "decided."
The Telegraph may love Grayling, but its bloggers are somewhat less impressed with Hunt's appointment. Reputedly Tory Prison Minister Nick Herbert, Tory Transport Secretary Justine Greening, and Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather were "Not Happy." In the growing opposition, some who have been reluctant to embrace Labour will rethink the wisdom of that position. And if Cameron thinks the pressure's off Hunt and Grayling over corruption charges, he is inhaling what he's smoking.
I suspect the most accurate assessment of these moves is they herald the campaign to salvage what can be salvaged for the Tories by signaling to the extended base a tilt toward their most cherished positions. Even as to whether the reshuffle succeeds on that very narrow measure remains to be seen.
In short, the reshuffle comes too late. Too much has gone too wrong too often for too long.
It’s the economy, stupid
But it isn't just their track record to date. The deck is likely stacked against Tories and Liberal Democrats, anyway.
"Are you better off today than you were under Labour?"
The single most important question to voters in 2015 (or earlier if building Coalition tensions boil over) will be, “are you better off today than you were in 2010.” With over 40 million unemployed and an estimated 120 million underemployed across the interrelated economies of the UK, the US, and Europe, it is difficult to foresee how any policy, much less the three prongs of UK government economic policy- austerity, competitiveness, and deregulation- can make the answer to that question anything approaching “yes.”
The most likely outcome of the three pronged policy is aggravation of the problem.
People who don't make a living wage don't buy products. When people don't buy products, demand falls. When demand falls, production falls. When production falls, Full Time Equivalent jobs earning decent wages fall. The cycle spirals down and out of control.
Don’t want to sound like a street corner prophet of doom, but Social Conservatives and Neo Liberals have already morphed a crisis into a one-in-a-hundred years disaster analogous to the Great Depression. And they seem hell-bent on escalating it into a once-in-a-millennium disaster.
The real and unsolved economic policy question of the day is, at what level, realistically, can the West expect to grow production to support what increased level of Full Time Equivalent jobs earning a living wage. It is in this unsolved question that the glider of PR rhetoric touches down on the rough cobbled road of reality. The realistic prospects for the future are likely not good for incumbents.
In the days ahead we will learn what, if anything, this reshuffle accomplishes. I wouldn't put my money on it resolving anything.