Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Minor earth tremor in Whitehall – Not many dead

The cabinet reshuffle has turned out, perhaps not unexpectedly, to be no more than the usual musical chairs, with various ministerial jobs being swapped about, but few really significant changes (as Austin Mitchell put it, a kerfuffle rather than a reshuffle).

A Tory backbencher recently asked provocatively whether the PM is a man or a mouse. When it comes to cabinet reshuffles, it seems he is the latter. I wrote several weeks ago that my impression was that this prime minister does not have the sheer guts of Harold Macmillan, who just 50 years ago (in 1962) had a ‘night of the long knives’ in which a hitherto unprecedented number of ministers (including the Chancellor of the Exchequer) were summarily dispatched to the back benches. I said that, political loyalties being what they are, I would be very surprised if ‘Dave’ could steel himself to sacrifice his old pal, ‘Boy’ George. I didn’t think Cameron was in the same league as Super-Mac. It seems I was right.

In fact, the Boy seems still to be the PM’s right-hand man, and continues to have a major role in developing government strategy – as witness last weekend’s announcement of further planning changes. It is the determination, apparently shared in equal measure by the PM and the Chancellor, to try to get the economy moving by relaxing planning controls that had made it the more likely in my view that Eric Pickles would be departing from De-CLoG. He had been brought in to deliver the Tories’ ‘localism’ agenda. This he did, in the form of the Localism Bill (now the 2011 Act), but ‘localism’ appears ever more irrelevant as a policy initiative, and is increasingly at variance with the government’s avowed intent to get the economy moving.

Worse than that, it seems that Uncle Eric represents a major obstacle to the implementation of the Cameron/Osborne growth strategy – a focus within the cabinet for ministerial opposition to the relaxation of planning controls and the easing of Green Belt policies. Not for the first time, Pickles seems to be heading up DeCLoG’s resistance to the Treasury’s efforts (backed by No.10) to free up development by changing planning rules. He fought the Treasury over the NPPF and is now shaping up for a fight over Osborne’s latest proposals on Green Belt and other planning controls. Frankly, if I were Cameron, I would want Pickles out of De-CLoG for that very reason, so that he could be replaced by a more compliant Secretary of State who could be relied upon to toe the Downing Street line.

However, it seems that Cameron has failed to grasp this particular nettle, and so he and Osborne can expect some significant internal resistance within the government to the changes that they want to see to the planning regime, which will only make it all the more difficult to overcome the vociferous opposition that can be expected both from the Tory back benches and from the CPRE, the Daily Torygraph and others who are incensed by this apparent threat to the green and pleasant Tory heartlands.

Meanwhile, Grant Shapps’ promotion to be Tory Party Co-Chairman leaves a vacancy at De-CLoG. Not only will at least one new face be seen in the departmental ministerial team, but there could well be other changes among the junior minsters in the department. We should know the answer in the next day or two.

[LATEST: Mark Prisk will take over from Grant Shapps as Housing Minister. Greg Clark moves to the Treasury and has been replaced by Nick Boles as the Minister for Planning. Bob Neill has left the government. Don Foster (Lib Dem) also comes in to replace his fellow Lib Dem Andrew Stunnell.]



  1. Cameron might know his history. Mcmillan was ousted as leader before the next election in favour of Sir Alec Douglas-Home who went on to lose to Harold Wilson. We'll see if Cameron can avoid that.

    Very surprised that Pickles didn't get the boot.

  2. Just to keep the historical record correct, Macmillan resigned in 1963 when he was diagnosed with a condition which he was advised required urgent surgery, but which turned out in the event to be much less serious than he had been led to believe. He might not have resigned if he had realised this at the time. He was certianly under no pressure to do so. His reshuffle in 1962 did have the desired effect and the Conservatives came close to winning the 1964 General Election (having been well down in the polls two years earlier). Macmillan’s sudden departure and the messy process of selecting a new leader (Douglas-Home) with all the accusations about the “Magic Circle”, and the perpetuation of an unfortunate ‘grouse moor image’ were unhelpful to the party’s chances. Had Macmillan not resigned when he did, the Conservatives might have scraped home in the 1964 election, albeit with a reduced majority compared with Macmillan’s success in the 1959 election. [End of history lesson.]

  3. Interesting! The ways I've heard it explained is that the youthful Wilson swept away the aristocratic tories.

  4. Wilson scraped in in October 1964 with a majority of 5. Election of a Labour speaker reduced that to 4. Then the government lost a by-election trying to get the Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon-Walker, back into the Commons (having lost his seat at the General Election), thus reducing the majority to 3. So to it is not quite accurate to say that Wilson ‘swept away’ the aristocratic Tories. However, he did get his big majority in 1966, but only kept the Tories out for another 4 years after that.

    Notwithstanding this, I think Wilson’s first cabinet was the most talented government the country has ever seen, if you look at in terms of sheer intellectual fire-power. Unfortunately this did not translate into successful action, and relentless economic problems led to a humiliating devaluation of the pound in 1967. After that it was all downhill.