Any re-structuring of government leaves a few elated, many disappointed, and some seriously disgruntled, but few ministerial reshuffles change much. In this year’s case, the coalition facts of life remain unaltered: the Lib Dems’ proposals to elect the House of Lords have collapsed; they have declared war on the boundary review which they previously championed, and the economy refuses to grow. It is easy to over-interpret the meaning of a reshuffle. Indeed we are intended to do so, but what really lies beyond the spin?
The media, almost inevitably, presented the reshuffle as a ‘lurch to the Right’. Yet the aspects which appear intended to ‘please the Right’ are ephemeral. The new Conservative ministers at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills may be determined to slash red tape and oversee a more business-friendly economy, but Vince Cable remains the Secretary of State. Michael Fallon – who was Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party – is an experienced and persuasive Minister, but he faces an uphill struggle. The same goes for Matthew Hancock, who had previously been a Chief of Staff to George Osborne in opposition.
Owen Paterson’s move from the Northern Ireland Office to DEFRA will not give him a free hand to abandon subsidies for wind turbines, or to exit the EU Common Agricultural Policy. Chris Grayling as the new Justice Secretary will not be able to alter a syllable of the Human Rights Act. With a stronger Lib Dem presence in some key departments, such as Jeremy Browne at the Home Office, Norman Lamb at Health and David Laws at Education, Conservative secretaries of state may well feel more restricted. David Laws also has a brief at the Cabinet Office, and is seen by some as a Lib Dem counterpart to Oliver Letwin.
The removal of Justine Greening from Transport to DfID purports to open the possibility of a third runway at Heathrow – something intended to please business. Boris Johnson’s reaction to this indicates how Heathrow expansion remains a political iceberg and in reality, the Heathrow third runway is the proverbial dead duck. Not even the Labour government, with a majority of 100, could get it through. David Cameron would do well to ensure that the Foster-Halcrow concept for the Thames Estuary Airport is considered on an equal footing with the shovel-ready plans for Heathrow. This requires investment in the necessary plans, costings, feasibility and impact studies, but this would blunt the accusation that the Howard Davies Commission is a fix for Heathrow, which it need not be, and be sensible preparation for action after 2015. It would also discredit Lib Dem anti-expansion campaigns taking off around Stansted or Gatwick, costing seats in marginal Harlow or Crawley. The Lib Dems appear opposed to any increased aviation capacity at all and will exploit this to the full.
The outgoing Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey had proclaimed the postponement of the Main Gate decision to renew the Trident fleet until after the next election as a Lib Dem ‘victory.’ He was in charge of overseeing a review of ‘alternatives to Trident.’ Now there is no anti-Trident minister at the MoD and David Laws is apparently running the review, as part of his Cabinet Office brief. This move shows little respect for the substance of this review. The study always was a fig leaf. The honest truth is that the future of Trident will be decided by the outcome of the next election: no Conservative majority is likely to mean the UK is on its way out as a nuclear power.
However, it is also significant that foreign and defence policy seem to be a Lib Dem-free zone, without a single Lib Dem minister in either the FCO or MoD. Lib Dems will not be implicated in the unpredictable consequences of the drawdown of British forces from Afghanistan, or rows with the EU, or what the government should do if Israel takes military action against Iran. There are few votes to gain from defence and foreign policy, but plenty to lose if things go wrong. Only Conservatives will have to take the rap.
At the moment, there is a notable lack of legislation in the parliamentary pipeline. There appears to be nothing that seems very contentious, but the new Whips’ office would be advised to remain alert. There are always ‘events’ and the ability for votes in the Commons to become talismans of wider discontent and frustration. Despite the Lib Dems’ change of heart, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act obliges the Boundary Commission to continue its work and for government bring forward the orders to implement the boundary review when they are ready. The Prime Minister is apparently still determined to put this to a vote. Lib Dem ministers could therefore end up voting against coalition legislation. How the concept of ‘collective responsiblity’ will work after that remains to be seen.