Checks and balances complicate the Prime Minister’s expected changes in Government. But what he rally needs is more northern faces round the Cabinet table. The Guardian Northerner‘s political columnist Ed Jacobs reflects
Cabinet reshuffles can be tricky things to undertake.
Used properly, they enable Prime Minister’s to breathe new life into their Governments and help them to stamp their authority on Whitehall. In 1981, Thatcher famously used a shuffle of her pack to purge her Government of the so called ‘wets’ in an attempt to show that she was in charge, which she managed to do extremely successfully. She became undoubtedly the biggest figure in British politics until the last year or so of her time at Downing Street.
Get a reshuffle wrong however and things can get sticky. Harold Macmillan’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in which he dumped seven of his cabinet ministers proved an unmitigated disaster. Likewise Tony Blair’s reshuffle of 2003 proved ill thought-out as he proudly announced that he had abolished the post of Lord Chancellor before later finding out that the law didn’t allow him to do so.
And the hazards don’t stop, there. In reshuffling the ministerial pack, Prime Ministers have a 3D game of chess to play. Ensuring continuity whilst being able to inject fresh blood into the top team; keeping all wings of the party happy; and ensuring that they don’t create too many enemies on the backbenchers – to name just three considerations. Blair for example had the constant worry in the background about how Gordon Brown would react to his shuffles.
For David Cameron however, things are exacerbated tenfold. As he mulls what looks set to be an imminent reshuffle from his holiday sunlounger, the prospect is likely to be causing him one mighty headache.
Putting aside the Ken Clarke problem, within his party Cameron has a hugely delicate task to perform. Little wonder that multiple strategies are being leaked to the press. The Daily Telegraph for example has reported that a number of the 2005 Conservative intake will be promoted in an effort to appease those who bear grievances and feel that they have so far been looked over in the promotion stakes. ConservativeHome has gone big on plugging those from the Conservative’s class of 2010 who should be handed keys to ministerial red boxes. And the need to maintain the Lib Dem/Conservative ratio in Government and for Cameron to keep both the left and right wings of his party together remain as pressing as ever.
Yet amidst all the talk of the Prime Minister needing to balance things out, one crucial factor is missing – regional balance.
A glance at the list of Government ministers reveals that just seven of them represent constituencies in northern England – three inside cabinet and four outside. Further, in the vast amount of material published on the forthcoming reshuffle so far, all the runners and riders looking set for promotion come from outside our three northern regions.
Whilst its undoubtedly the case that Prime Minister’s should pick who is best for ministerial positions based on competence rather than where they represent, Cameron, whether he realises it yet or not, is in desperate need of northern voices around his top table.
As I have previously argued, the Conservatives also desperately need more seats across the north if they are to achieve that elusive majority at the next general election. That prospect has been made harder because of the decision by Nick Clegg to veto constituency boundary changes.
With the Olympics now done and dusted, Ministers need to expand as much energy into building up the north as has been invested in London and the south east over the past few years. It is nowhere near enough that the likes of Eric Pickles and Justine Greening are northern by birth. They now represent Parliamentary seats in the south. Nothing can beat the authenticity of northern MPs, in Government and Cabinet, having to return to the region on a weekly basis and hear in surgeries week in and week out of the personal, harsh struggles faced by fellow-northerners.
In the end, however, even a reshuffle which meets this need will not compensate for the Government’s central problem, which both Nick Clegg and David Cameron will have to address if the coalition isn’t simply going to limp on unproductively until 2015. With constitutional reform proving so divisive for the coalition partners, economic growth a dim memory and borrowing increasing, all of the supposed raisons d’etre of the coalition have one by one been eroded.
As they mull the reshuffle therefore, perhaps the best question for both David Cameron and Nick Clegg to be asking themselves is not who should have what job but something far more fundamental: what exactly is the point of this Government?