What with high-fiving Jean-Claude Junker, reshuffling his Cabinet, facing criticism over proposed honours for former ministers and seeing his new Chief Whip defeated by, of all things, a House of Commons toilet, no-one can say David Cameron’s week has been dull.
This week, perhaps more than any other in recent months, has shown that Westminster is now in election mode. The Lib Dems have helped with their loud (and very late) volte-face on the bedroom tax, but it’s been the Conservatives that have made the headlines as Mr Cameron uncharacteristically wielded the axe and shuffled his pack to put his Cabinet on an election footing. Some of the major changes were to be expected: Owen Paterson has, after all, faced significant criticism from many quarters for many months, while Ken Clarke had long been touted for a final return to the backbenches. Others, such as William Hague’s departure from the Foreign Office, were a surprise – albeit that most political strategists knew it would happen sooner or later. Others, including Michael Gove’s removal from the Departure for Education, were far more of a shock – although perhaps the biggest shock of all was the extent of a reshuffle from a Prime Minister who until this week had preferred to keep ministers in place and to give them time to learn their briefs and attempt real change.
The reshuffle was billed both as the removal of the ‘old, pale and stale’ and an opportunity for the Prime Minister to make good on his commitment to include more women in the Cabinet – although this messaging does the incoming ministers and Secretaries of State something of disservice as it risks the narrative being one of age and gender rather than individual new ministers’ accomplishments and potential.
In performing such radical surgery so close to the election, Mr Cameron has attempted to give himself the starting line-up that he believes will best appeal to voters and will win the Conservatives the election. Frankly the jury is out on whether this is the case. Mr Gove may well make an exceptional Chief Whip, but if he was moved from education for being unpopular it seems a curious decision to put him in a role in which he has been touted as one of the Party’s principal spokespeople. And while there may be little legislating left to do before the election, Mr Cameron has left his new ministers with minimal time to learn the briefs they will presumably fight the election on, or time to establish themselves in their roles.
This new Cabinet may well win Mr Cameron and the Conservatives the election, especially considering Labour’s internal rumblings and lack of policy, the Lib Dems standing in the eyes of the electorate, and Ukip disappearing almost without trace since the European and local elections. But the reshuffle might still come back to haunt Mr Cameron. Lose the election and it will forever be seen as the wrong decision. The other scenario that will damage Mr Cameron is if he wins but then changes his starting line-up again immediately afterwards – in which case he would face the charge of putting style over substance in order to hold onto the keys to Downing Street.