Voter-friendly reshuffle from the PR prime minister is more spin than substance

Have we seen the back of William Hague? Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

David Cameron apparently doesn’t like reshuffles; “chillaxing” Dave prefers, so we are told, to leave people to get on with the job. So why such an apparently drastic overhaul of (the Conservative part of) his government, and why now?

There are usually three factors at play in any reshuffle: public relations, internal party politics – and last, and usually least, getting the right people into the right jobs.

On all three counts this appears to be a strange reshuffle.

Few of the moves are obviously about getting “the right person for the job”, and indeed some seem positively odd (although one or two moves are clearly about getting the wrong person out of a job). There doesn’t seem to be very much internal politicking involved, except a small but significant shift in a more Eurosceptic direction and maybe some personal score settling. So the main thrust of the changes seems to be purely for PR reasons – mostly the around the so-called “women” issue.

Election campaign begins here

In terms of policies, less than a year away from a general election you would think the prime minister would want to focus on what has been achieved since 2010. Arguably the three flagship policies since the Coalition was formed have been austerity and health and education reform. It is passing strange then that the architects of two of these three: Michael Gove in education and Andrew Lansley in health, have now been demoted or sacked entirely. (Whilst Iain Duncan Smith strangely remains at the helm of a rapidly sinking Universal Credit).

True, Andrew Lansley, or “La La Lansley” as he was unfondly known in the health service, had already been demoted and his health reforms are probably not something the Government wants to dwell on too much.

But Michael Gove, although widely loathed by teachers and education experts, was generally thought to be doing rather well in pushing through Tory policies on free schools and the like. So it’s not at all clear why he’s been removed at this fairly crucial stage in the education reform process.

The spin is that Gove is being “freed up” to play more of a campaigning role in the run-up to the election and this is not a “demotion” at all. But that doesn’t explain why he’s been made chief whip, a job for which he is not obviously well suited. I don’t think “people skills” is the first thing most would associate with Mr Gove.

Moreover the chief whip’s role is traditionally very much a backroom one – not the “Minister for the Today programme”. Perhaps it could be argued that very little will happen in the House of Commons between now and May 2015 – the so-called “zombie parliament” has a notoriously light legislative agenda. So perhaps the chief whip won’t have much to do?

Gove is not noted for his positive electioneering skills, although he is a tough debater so perhaps his role will be as an attack dog against Labour ?

Whatever his role, and whatever he and Number 10 may say, I can’t see how him being moved from headmaster at education to head prefect in the Commons will be seen as a sideways move. Whether or not she had anything to do with his defenestration from education, Theresa May will surely be pleased?

Tories’ problem with women

Gove has been moved to make way for a woman – Nicky Morgan – which is clearly part of the PM’s attempt to address the Conservatives “women problem”. From being the party of female voters for decades, the Tories now regularly trail Labour (although some analysts think this trend is exaggerated and there isn’t much of a real gap at all).

The whole reshuffle has been heavily spun as a major shift towards including more women in positions of power in the government. But the reality is rather less dramatic than the hype; the number of women in government has increased, but only by a couple of extra overall. True, some women have been raised to Cabinet rank, but that begs the question of why Cameron waited until now? He’s had four years to promote more women.

And some aspects of the “feminisation” of the Government could well backfire. It has already been revealed, for example, that Tina Stowell, the new Tory leader in the House of Lords, is being paid substantially less (£78,891) than her male predecessor (£101,038) and is not, unlike him, a full member of the Cabinet. Not exactly a good “equal opportunities” advert.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised a PR PM goes for a PR reshuffle – how much effect it will have, if any, remains to be seen. If any voters are swayed at all it is more likely to be teachers – of both genders – rather than women I suspect.

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