In which I struggle to muster the energy to get annoyed with Ian Duncan Smith

So Ian Duncan Smith, Minister for Work and Pensions, thinks he could live on £53 per week. In fact he’s sure he could because he’s been unemployed before and is therefore very much down with the common man. If you’ve missed out on this little news titbit, it’s worth reading the Guardian’s version of the story, not least for the supreme piece of editing that butts IDS’s claim to have experienced poverty right up next to the additional detail that he’s married to the daughter of the 5th Baron Cottesloe.

And clearly, he probably could live on £53 for a week or even a couple of weeks, but that’s not really the point. You can probably get through the first week without needing to go to the launderette and eating only value beans on value toast. The second week is more difficult. By the third week you smell bad, you’ve run out of stuff like soap and toilet roll and you’re starting to want to throw value beans at passersby.

All of that is so utterly self-evident and not really worth the energy it took to type, that it’s making me wonder if I’ve actually reached the point of anger-fatigue with the current state of British politics. I used to get mad about this stuff. There are sufficient ranty blog posts on this very site to show my ability to get a tad worked up about major and minor policy issues. But today I’m struggling to work up a good head of rant. Maybe the triple whammy of Legal Aid cuts, welfare cuts and NHS “reform” is just a bit overwhelming for my poor liberal bleeding heart, but I feel tired. Tired of complaining. Tired of virtuously keeping myself informed, writing letters to my MP, signing petitions, retweeting links to campaign sites, and actually turning up to exercise my democratic whatnot at every election from local council to Westminster to Europe, without it really seeming to make a blind bit of difference.

I feel confused by a political landscape in which poor people and immigrants are unquestioningly talking about as scroungers right across the political spectrum. I feel confused by a set up where jobseekers’ benefit rate is experiencing a real-terms drop, but large companies are allowed to negotiate how much tax they feel like paying. I feel confused by an Education Secretary who talks about the importance of evidence-based education policy only after he’s announced a whole set of major education policies. And I feel like, in voting terms, there’s nowhere for tired confused liberals to go and have out metaphorical wounds licked. Maybe we need a new political party, born out of disenfranchisement, like the early labour movement. A party peopled by slightly over-anxious liberals who’s main contribution to parliamentary debate would be to suggest that it might be a bit more complicated than that. Or maybe I just need to take a break from reading the papers and come back when I’ve got the energy to get properly wound up again. Ho-hum.

In which I consider how David Cameron is really surprisingly bad at politics

Last week saw a cabinet reshuffle at Westminster. Cue lots of twitter jokes about rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, and lots of Newsnight footage of MPs in varying states on promotion and getting-sackedness. It was a truly amazingly terrible reshuffle, pretty much whatever point of view you look at it from. There are essentially four reasons for reshuffling a cabinet: 1) To make your government look more public-friendly and re-electable; 2) To shore up your leadership with the party faithful 3) You have no choice, because someone high profile quits or; 4) Because you want to announce something truly horrendous on the same day and it’s a handy way of distracting the media.

This reshuffle was in the middle of a paralympics, so I don’t think it was 4). We’ve had a summer absolutely tailormade for burying bad news, so why not save your reshuffle until you really need it? It’s not 3) either. Everyone who’s gone or been demoted appears to have gone unwillingly. So let’s assess the esteemed Mr Cameron’s success on points 1) and 2).

1) To make you government look more public-friendly and re-electable.

Let’s put aside the fact that we didn’t actually entirely elect this government. It’s looking increasingly likely that the next general election will be a good old fashioned two-horse race, the Lib Dems having thrown away the longer electoral war for the short-term “victory” in the Battle of the Coalition Agreement. Given that, if Cameron was looking for a reshuffle that would improve public perception of his government, how’s he done?

Let’s start with the positives. Andrew Lansley, formerly Secretary of State for Health was kicked into the political semi-retirement role of Leader of the House. That’s going to be popular in most circles. The year’s Health & Social Care Bill (on which I had views here) was astronomically unpopular, and the decision to present poorly people with bedside video of his big old head was, entirely inexplicably and unpredictably, met with some derision.

Other positives? No. None at all really. Let’s look at a fairly significant group in the electorate with whom the Conservatives are vulnerable, a full 50% of the population: the Lady-women. Now, astoundingly, despite being ruled by our wombs and prone to fits of fainting and hysteria, women in the UK are permitted to do voting. Historically, going back to the immediate post-war period, women were seen as much more likely to vote Conservative than men. That big gender disparity has largely broken down (as demonstrated in this analysis of the 2005 election polling and result), but Cameron still can’t afford to annoy half the electorate. His “Calm down, dear” comment during PMQs coupled with MPs’ schoolboy responses to comments about Nadine Dorries MP’s “frustration” have rather combined to create an impression of a boys’ club government, slightly confused that not all women around them are solely focused on perfecting their victoria sponge and selecting soft furnishings for the nursery. This was an opportunity to shuffle some women into the cabinet, but actually the number of women has gone down from 5 to 4 and a half (Baroness Warsi is still allowed to attend cabinet but can’t vote – one can only assume her role is to bring the biscuits and sit quietly).

But what about wider electoral issues for men and women? The political orthodoxy in the UK says that you win General Elections by occupying the centre ground. Even the most vilified of right-wing leaders, Margaret Thatcher, was able to present herself, accurately or not, as more middle-ground that the very left-wing Labour Party of the time. Tony Blair brought Labour back into government by steering the party sharply to the right and occupying the centre position left vacant by the Tory’s descent into infighting and obsessive preoccupation with the EU. This reshuffle can only be seen as a shift to the right. The cabinet (and indeed the Tory party’s) highest profile moderate, Ken Clarke, has been dumped from the Minister for Justice post and made Minister Without Portfolio, a position which doesn’t really mean anything very much at all. The architects of many of the most electorally difficult policies (Gove at Education and, of course, Osbourne at the Treasury) have stayed in post.

So, this isn’t a reshuffle to shore up Cameron’s position with the wider electorate. Maybe his focus is on…

 

2) To shore up your leadership with the party faithful

Moving to the right will be popular here. There’s real resentment amongst Tory rank and file at having to pay lip service to funny new fangled Liberal Democrat ideas, so the perception that Cameron is recommitting himself to core Tory values is likely to go down well.

But for these purposes you’ve got to question whether Cameron has gone far enough. More than anything else, this reshuffle looks kind of lame. He’s managed to only half-sack Lansley, Clarke and Warsi, which makes him look like a deeply indecisive and unconfident leader. Does he want them in the cabinet or not? In addition, he tried to get Ian Duncan Smith out of the Department of Work and Pensions, but Duncan Smith was able to leverage his popularity with the party to politely (or not) refuse. There’s no other context in which a boss can try to dismiss you and you get to just go, “Er, no thanks mate, if it’s all the same to you.” The papers, this week, are full of pre-party Conference gossip about stalking horse candidates and a possible return to the Commons for Boris Johnson, something of a perennial thorn in Cameron’s side. This is a time when Cameron needs to look strong as a leader – on the evidence of this reshuffle he just looks a bit meh.

 

There’s other things to be concerned about in this reshuffle too. Realistically, it doesn’t look like there are going to be any major policy changes on the Big News economic stuff. There might be policy shifts in other areas – Transport is the obvious one here, where the vexed issue of London’s airport capacity has shot right to the top of the agenda. But, essentially, the cabinet doesn’t make policy anymore anyway. Including those people, like Ken Clarke and Baroness Warsi, who don’t really know why they’re there, the new cabinet meetings will have 32 attendees. Anyone who’s ever sat through a meeting with more than about 8 people will know that a group of 32 ain’t going to be a well-oiled decision making machine. And this reshuffle underlines the practice of policy being made by a inner circle of PM, Chancellor, their special advisers and possibly a handful of powerful ministers – Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith look like the men who’ve come out of this with influence in tact. Accepting that ministers don’t make policy, means that it’s fine to have ministers who know little or nothing about their area of responsibility. The position of Justice Secretary is a case in point. The post was created in 2005 when Tony Blair got rid of the post of Lord Chancellor. Previously the Lord Chancellor had to be drawn from the legal professions. The new post, as with any other cabinet position, was entirely in the gift of the PM. Up until now, all the occupants have been former barristers. Chris Grayling has no legal background or training, but he’s the minister responsible for Britain’s justice system. Knowing about stuff no longer matters, because it’s no longer the role of ministers to make decisions. It’s the role of ministers to appear on Question Time and try not to accidentally say anything controversial or interesting. It all makes me a bit sad really.

Oh and, Jeremy Hunt is the new Health Secretary. Jeremy Hunt supports homeopathy, apparently opposed the NHS tribute in the Olympics opening ceremony, supported the takeover of hospitals in his own constituency by Virgin Care and co-wrote a 2005  pamphlet which recommended healthcare system based on insurance and individuals choosing their own healthcare provider. In 2010, David Cameron claimed that the Tories were “the party of the NHS.” In 1997 Tony Blair promised us that things  could only get better. Reader, they lied.