Why Now Was The Wrong Time For Cameron To Reshuffle

Larry the Downing Street Cat
Larry the Downing Street Cat
Larry the Cat stalks the Cabinet table

There are already hundreds of news articles, op-eds, and blogs discussing the rights and wrongs – and, indeed, the rights and lefts – of David Cameron’s reshuffle. They’ll tell you what the reshuffle signifies for the coalition, the country, and the cod fisheries if you look hard enough.

I have my own views on promoting an MP who lied to Parliament and giving a job to another who effectively stole money from the public purse, but that’s not what I want to write about today.
Instead, I want to tell you why I think Cameron completely mistimed the reshuffle.
That might seem irrelevant but his lack of political skill in handling his biggest job reflects on his leadership skills, his party management, and his tactical nous. We already know that the PM is no strategist. But he is, usually at least, intuitive. He has a knack of saying the right things and doing the right things at the right time. And when he does that well, he looks like he’s very competent.
Tony Blair was, and is, brilliantly intuitive but also extremely intelligent, both intellectually and emotionally. Brown less intuitive but with a brain the size of a small moon. So when their intuition failed they had intellect to back up their prime ministering.
Cameron’s problem – one of them anyway – is a lack of that same intellect. He is, in fact, pretty stupid. So when his intuition fails, he looks like a bit of a tit, to be frank. He tends to look a bit of a tit far more often than he looks on top of a situation. The timing of this reshuffle is just one example of his tittishness.
If he’d carried out his reshuffle at the end of the last parliamentary session, his new ministers would have had the

Jeremy Hunt
This is what a smug sod looks like

summer to find their feet in their new briefs, returning to Parliament this week with some grasp of their departments and ready to make the most of their time. As well as them, those people who’d lost their jobs would have had time away from the Westminster pressure-cooker, out of the way of the media, to lick their wounds, spin their backward moves as decisions to focus on constituencies or families or election campaigns, and they would have returned this week ready to focus on the parliamentary battles that lie ahead.

Instead the people who’ve been promoted have spent their summers managing expectations by telling anyone who’d listen that they didn’t want to be in the cabinet and those who had jobs already were telling everyone how much they loved being Culture Secretary or whatever their job happened to be. And now they’re all here in Westminster, either changing their stories to include their life-long interest in whatever their new brief is or, even worse, spending their sudden free time hanging around tea rooms plotting, trouble-making, and leaking to the press. The devil makes work for idle hands, and there are a few idle hands now.
Another problem for a reshuffle at the beginning of September is that the Tories’ annual conference is a few weeks away and lots of organisations will have arranged for ministers to come and address meetings on their portfolio areas. Those organisations are unlikely to want the former minister for sewage systems addressing their fringe meeting. They’ll want the current one.  It doesn’t sound like a big problem, but it’ll make for further battering of egos and, if the new ministers agree to carry out their predecessor’s engagements, they’re not going to be masters of their topics by then and are going to look less impressive than they could be on a panel. Not a good position to be put in.
All of this could have been avoided if Dave had simply thought a bit more about the timing of his long-awaited reshuffle. A little thought would have made for a stronger-looking change, better long-term party management, and less opportunity for enemies within the party (and he’s just gotten a few more) to congregate. At the very least, he could’ve done it on Friday and given himself and his backbenchers the weekend.
If he can’t get this right, you have to wonder how he’ll get running the country right…
Oh, and just in case you missed it elsewhere, there’s a list of the Cabinet members after Dave shuffled his pack here.
Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Osbornomics For Beginners

The Independent are really good at graphic representations of information. Especially in their latest project, the newspaper they call ‘i’. Well worth a look if you get the chance.

Today, they’ve published this handy graphic to show the rapid and massive changes in Government forecasts for 2011 growth, and lets you draw your own conclusions about George Osborne’s handling of the UK economy. I won’t say any more about it, just have a look and soak it in.

Plan B? What Plan B?

The Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, Lo...
Image via Wikipedia

The coalition Government has several things to be worried about but one of its major concerns must surely be the chance of a rise in inflation.

In December, the CPI rose from 3.3% to 3.7% with the RPI sitting at 4.8%. Not great if you have a mortgage. Or indeed if you have savings sitting in the bank becoming less and less valuable. The Bank of England, however, are so far maintaining that this rise in inflation is the exception to the rule, and not a sustained trend. They maintain, despite the long duration of this aberration, that if we just stay patient, inflation will come down. All we apparently need to do is keep interest rates as low as we can to keep demand as high as possible.

Mervyn King and friends tell us that the high inflation we are seeing will eventually work it’s way through the economic system if we’re patient enough. They also say that the reason there don’t seem to be any increase in wage demands is that people are happy to accept the current situation and are relieved to be in work and managing to survive despite the loss of value of the money in our pockets and standards of living.

And this is what should make the Government worry. As the purchasing power of our pound falls and our living standards drop, people will begin to lose patience. Which will not be very good for the governing parties when it comes to polls and elections. This is, of course, assuming that the Bank of England are right and this high inflation is a temporary deviation. If they’re wrong, and inflation continues to climb, then interest rate increases will have to be pretty harsh to stem the tide of such inflation. That will hit peoples’ pockets even harder and lead to deeper unpopularity for Cameron, Clegg and Co. 

The Government are going to get caught between the Devil of the Bank of England who have control of interest rates and insist inflation rises are temporary, and mortgage holders who hope interest rates stay low, and the Deep Blue Sea of those with savings who will see the value of their money vanishing before their very eyes.

Given that Gordon Brown ensured the Bank of England had total independence, there’s almost nothing George Osborne or any of the cabinet are able to do. They’re forced to sit there and acknowledge increases in the price of goods and services, while hoping and praying that the Bank is right because there’s no plan to deal with the inevitable problems that arise if they’re wrong.

 

Tories Take Out The Trash

Any West Wing fan will know what taking out the trash is all about. It’s that skill of dumping all the bad news stories where they’re least likely to get read.

The theory being, with newspapers at least, that they have X amount of column inches to fill and they can either fill that with one bad story or you can dump a bunch of stories and the same number of column inches will be split between all those stories, thereby getting less coverage per story. I guess the same goes for the minutes of airtime available to the broadcast news too.

The Nirvana of this activity is not just dumping these stories on a Friday (nobody reads the papers on Saturday), the real goal is to dump your bad news behind a really big positive story. There aren’t many positive stories about, so when they occur spinners are on them like white on rice.

And that’s exactly what happened yesterday. Cameron told the cabinet about the impending royal wedding at around 0930, and the spinners started dumping their announcements from about 1030 onwards.

I would write a big list of what those items were, but Tom Watson has already done the work for me, so I suggest you go here and take a look at them.

A price worth paying?

Just what is David Cameron willing to do to hang on to his new best friend?

I’ve got friends I’ll buy a pint for, I’ve got good friends I’d give £20 if they needed it, and I’ve got best friends I’d maybe lend £500 to.

And I think that’s probably the same for most people. We all have friends with differing strengths of bonds who we would do different things for.

Does our Prime Minister share these standards with the rest of us? Is this one of qualities that makes him Common Dave?

Well no, it’s clearly not.

He made friends with someone he hardly knew over a few days in May this year, and a few months on he’s happily given his new pal £1.4 billion. That’s right. 1.4 billion British pounds right at a time when we are supposedly making the biggest cuts in decades.

Now I’m not saying Dave stuffed £1.4bn worth of tenners into bags and dropped round Nick Clegg’s house with it. That’d be silly. And take an enormous number of bags. And probably a bigger house than Clegg’s Putney pad.

No, what Dave did was to delay replacement of the country’s nuclear deterrent, Trident. You see, Nick doesn’t like Trident. And if Dave wants Nick to be his friend, then Dave had best not play with it. Cameron mustn’t buy a new eagle eye action man Trident. That’s one of the few deals holding the coalition together. Clegg, who backed down over a number of Lib Dem policies including tuition fees, stuck to his non-nuclear guns when Trident was delayed until 2016, conveniently the year after the next general election.

As well as this delay, the Vanguard-class submarines will also be kept in service for a further four years. Liam Fox told the Commons this week that the total cost of these delays will be £1.4 billion.

Cameron may say in press briefings that he is trying to save money, but the truth is he’ll spend it when it comes to his new best friend, Nick. Amazing what someone will do for a friend.

Murdoch v Cable – Rumble in the westminster jungle

PM and Vince Cable in Delhi
Image by The Prime Minister's Office via Flickr

I’m not Vince Cable’s biggest fan. I’ll happily admit that. I can’t help but think that his announcement that he had personally taken the decision to refer the News Corp attempted takeover of Sky TV to OfCom was just a little about getting some good publicity for himself.

I suppose I could be wrong but even the New Statesman is reporting Cable’s decision as

a remarkable demonstration of his independence from David Cameron

So it seems likely that Cable took the press coverage into consideration when he decided how to handle the announcement. Cable made it very clear that this decision was his and his alone, striking a blow against the vicious nasty Tory overlords, or some such thing.

Except he wasn’t, was he? I mean, just think it through properly. What else could the Coalition do? If they’d approved the bid for Sky, the (non-Murdoch) media would be crying foul about David Cameron riding roughshod over the Lib Dems and civil servants, all to please his Murdoch, whose pocket he would obviously be very definitely in.

Following the bad press over the failed European Summit, and then the idiotic PR error of hiring a personal photographer and film-maker on the tax-payers pound, how would more headlines about the PM being for sale and Murdoch being the real Prime Minister come across? Could Cameron afford to risk that kind of negative publicity?

So Cameron and his advisers get him a nice little get-out clause with Rupert. He gets Saint Vince to announce the investigation, which naturally Cable jumps at for the headlines he gets. Then Dave phones up Murdoch and says, “Rupert, there’s nothing I can do. That jumped-up shit Cable has ignored me, and now my hands are tied.”

But it seems obvious, to me at least, that there was nothing else Cameron could do without a tory majority in the Commons. I can well imagine the distress and anguish Dave and the Tory high command might display in private meetings with the Murdochs, and I’m sure one or two of them might even mean it. But the truth of this is that they can promise the News Corp chiefs whatever they want to because they know they would never have to follow it through. It’s a nice bit of political dancing from Team Cameron, putting publicity-hungry Cable front and centre and squarely in the Murdoch cross-hairs.

Of course, Murdoch didn’t get to be one of the most powerful men on the planet without being able to see through manoeuvring like Cameron’s. And there’s room for more than one person in those formidable gun sights.

Cameron’s EU issues

I’ve just been on my break at work. I had a Crunchie and a can of Diet Coke. That’s not at all relevant to the blog post, but I like to paint an exact picture. During said break, I watched the Prime Minister’s Statement to Parliament on the EU summit. I have to say it wasn’t up to much.

Since his return from the summit he has tried very hard to create an image of some sort of personal victory in his battle with the EU leaders, when in fact everyone is aware that it was a failure.

In today’s statement, he claimed he’d negotiated hard over many weeks to get consensus over a 2.9% increase. Which sounds fabulous doesn’t it? Very proactive. Very go-getting… unless you’ve read Hansard in the last couple of weeks. Then you’ll see that he told the House on 20th October, so just over a week ago, that he was in fact working hard to have the budget frozen.

Oops.

Another of his marvellous wheezes declarations was the waving around of a letter signed by 12 nations plus Britain in support of the 2.9% settlement. Great. Wow. Dave’s ace at this European thing isn’t he? Well, no. He’s not. In August, 20 nations agreed a settlement of 2.9% but his letter only has 13. And one of them is us.

So somewhere in his high-powered negotiations, Cameron has managed to lose 7 nations who were supporting his settlement and then decided not to.

Oops again. 

It seems to me that the Prime Minister was a fair way out of his depth at the summit when negotiating with Sarkozy and Merkel. He was played and now he’s trying to spin his way out of it back home.

France and Germany always wanted a settlement somewhere near 3%, and were happy for the European Parliament to be outriders with a ridiculous claim for 6%, in order for them to finally agree a moderate increase that they actually wanted with the Eurosceptics.

It’s as if David Cameron has never watched Bargain Hunt!

Cameron’s problem with Europe is that his priority isn’t the country’s relations with our continental neighbours. His priority is how he handles Europe within his party. Not only does he have his own Eurosceptics to manage, but also his new partners the Lib-Dems, famously Europhile in their ideology, as far as any ideology can be discerned these days. So now Dave has an added element to an already-tricky political balancing act. It’s an area he would hope to avoid as much as possible.

Of course, in the aftermath of the debt crisis and the Eurozone bailout of Greece, that is going to prove much harder to do. It was Germany who ensured that bailout happened and now Germany is ensuring other Eurozone countries follow their lead. Angela Merkel made a request that the Lisbon Treaty be amended to include a process to deal with bailouts in the future. This is going to keep alive discussion on the future of the EU just when Cameron would like to forget all about it.

Cuts to welfare hurt working families

The Brethren* are pouring out reports, analyses, and policy documents on an almost daily basis at the moment. And this is no bad thing if you’re a blogger looking for something to write about. They’re, quite correctly, taking the threats posed by the Spending Review very seriously.

Today is no exception to that. And an important piece of analysis it is. This one shows that almost two-thirds of the welfare and benefit cuts – totalling £15.9 billion so far – will hit working families. That’s in contradiction to the Government’s claim that they are ‘making work pay’.

The analysis shows that working households will suffer a loss of around £9.4 billion, compared to £5.9 billion for non-working households. 69 per cent of the policies in the spending review alone hit working households, at a cost of £4.5 billion.

That’s because most of welfare cuts for working age people relate to benefits for children so working families are taking the brunt of the cuts. This detail comes right behind data that showed that departmental spending cuts will hit the poorest households 15 times harder than the richest 10 per cent, as well as analysis from the IFS which found the tax and benefit changes announced in the spending review and emergency budget were regressive and not progressive.

Housing benefit cuts are hitting low-income households hardest and more than half of all poor children living in working households mean that targeting those working households is likely to increase child poverty. 

This comes on top of increases in the rate at which tax credits are withdrawn and reductions in childcare elements of working tax credit. These combinations act as a huge disincentive for low-income households to work more hours or gain a second income, and contradict George Osborne’s stated aim of ‘making work pay’.

Despite all the coalition cries of fairness and necessity, the government are already losing that argument. The government may claim they are forcing alleged work-shy scroungers back to work, but it is working families, both poor and the ‘squeezed middle’, who are the biggest losers from the spending cuts.

Neither of the coalition parties had such deep and rapid cuts in their election manifestoes and, as such, have very little mandate for carrying them through. The scale of the cuts announced is nothing but a political and ideological choice which nobody in the country has voted for.

Nobody voted for lower living standards. Nobody voted for higher child poverty. Nobody voted for unparalleled job losses. And nobody voted for banks and big business to be let off payment of taxes which would support our economy.  Team Cameron need to review their plans before the damage they do becomes irreparable. But they won’t.

 

*The Brethren are of course my brother (and sister) trades unionists. This is as compared to The Comrades who are my fellow members of the Labour Party. These names are meant with (at least a touch of) affection and are a habit I picked up from my mate Smithsky. We are both members of the Brethren and the Comrades, and can call them what we like.

Europe casts a long shadow

Some things are predictable. These things include:

1 – If Newcastle United are having a run of good form, then a good player will get a serious injury.

2 – In school, some kid will always ignore the chemistry teacher and inhale a chemical they shouldn’t. Every term. Without fail. In my school it was the same kid who had already burned a hole through his clothes with a lump of magnesium.

3 – Arch-populist Vince Cable, in any given policy area, will have made completely opposing statements just to cover his bases.

But today’s predictable thing is this:

Whenever the Tories are in Government, Europe will be front-page news before long.

And so it came to pass. Cameron jets off to his first summit of European leaders and already there’s a furore – yes I used the word furore – over an increase to the EU’s central budget.

This is always interesting because the Tories are permanently split on how to deal with Europe. Now it’s more interesting because we have the added bonus of a potential area of disagreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems, their submissive slaves, human shields, partners in the coalition Government.

The right-wing of the Tory party are already vocalizing their displeasure at Cameron’s failure to prevent an increase in the UK contribution to the EU budget.

France and Germany went into these talks wanting revisions to the Lisbon Treaty to create a permanent process to ensure that Eurozone countries are bailed out, as Greece was, in any future financial meltdown. On top of that, the European Parliament wanted a 6% increase in the contributions from member countries. Cameron should have dealt with these issues over the last few months but appears to have left it all too late.

He’s now got William Hague and the rest of the cabinet spinning the story that Cameron did great work in getting the budget increase limited to 2.9%. Which is, of course, nonsense.

At a time when Britain is cutting spending across all departments, the right political move would have been being seen to campaign for a complete freeze in budget increases. Despite that  400 million pounds isn’t a great chunk compared to the 155 thousand million pounds of the deficit, the principle stands. That’s £400 million that could have been spent in schools, hospitals, transport infrastructure, or policing.

Dave may have been comfortable campaigning through the general election as a eurosceptic, but as with most Prime Ministers, he’s finding that stance a lot harder in the world of realpolitik. Instead, he’s ended up taking a moderate line in the limited negotiations he’s attempted. He may now be realising just how difficult it is to make demands in Europe when your only allies are the far-right fascist minority.

Now he has to deal with the right of his own party.

Remember Cameron’s cast-iron guarantee? The promise that if Cameron became PM, a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from negotiations, and that no treaty should be ratified without consulting the British people in a referendum. The eurosceptics of his party haven’t forgotten.

 And now the naturally right-wing grassroots, and indeed backbenches, are going to make their voices heard like they do in the photo taken from here at Conservative Home. Let’s see how Cameron deals with that. More spin I suspect.