Today’s reshuffle has been largely about cosmetic improvements to the Conservative party — not just through the promotion of female MPs, but also by neutralising certain policy areas such as education and planning reform that had antagonised some groups. But an important element in any changing of the guard is party management, and not just managing cross sacked ministers. So how has the Conservative party reacted to today’s events?
Naturally, all Tory MPs are as startled as everyone else by Michael Gove’s departure. But it does make sense to them. Ministerial colleagues had grown increasingly frustrated that Gove, who polls very badly with the general public, was having fights and intervening on issues that either didn’t affect him or were what Lynton Crosby would consider ‘barnacles’. Number 10 may be insisting that this wasn’t a demotion, and it certainly wasn’t a vote of no confidence in Gove’s policies, but it is being seen as a demotion in the Tory party. Some are a little bit nervous that being one of the four broadcast ministers means the former Education Secretary will have even more opportunity to stir things up on the airwaves. But, if he has an official role as part of the Tory TV campaign machine, then his appearances and interventions will be better controlled. And while promoting Liz Truss would have made a great deal more sense, no-one is disputing Nicky Morgan’s calm, collected ability as a minister. Indeed, though the women appointed to Cabinet had more obvious positions than the ones they now occupy, it is difficult to argue that they haven’t earned their promotions: Truss, Morgan and Tina Stowell are all seriously impressive.
But the dust is still settling over whether there has been adequate compensation for Owen Paterson’s departure. Eurosceptics I have spoken to this afternoon are furious that he has gone. All say that he seriously knew his stuff and that the contrast with Truss, who has not up to this point shown a particular enthusiasm for ash trees, is particularly sharp. But on the other hand, Philip Hammond is now the Foreign Secretary. ‘We finally have some clarity,’ one senior backbencher told me, and many others agree. And Michael Fallon, another eurosceptic who is not afraid to speak out about the 2017 referendum, is Defence Secretary. These appointments should compensate for anger about Paterson’s departure. As for Liam Fox’s decision to turn down a minister of state job at the Foreign Office, there was some surprise that he had even been offered such a junior post. But it is wrong to assume that his appointment would have cheered the eurosceptic right anyway. A number of senior MPs on this wing of the party have today said they would not have welcomed his appointment because he is ‘tainted’. ‘Anyone who thinks this would have been a good thing for party management clearly hasn’t spoken to us for a long time,’ grumbles one senior rebel.
Michael Gove’s departure from Education was also surprising because he moved to Chief Whip, which everyone assumed Greg Hands would get. But this is a welcome surprise indeed for Tory MPs. Senior backbenchers say this would have been a disaster as Hands is far too much George Osborne’s man, and many disagree with his management style. But to be fair to Hands, many other MPs have been impressed over the past few months with the way he has operated as deputy chief whip. By contrast, Gove is as charming in private as he is pugnacious in public.
There is, though, a bit of frustration with the way the shuffle has been presented as the men being chased out and the women ushered in. Pitching women against men is a very aggressive way of doing a reshuffle, especially when some of the changes briefed in advance, such as a Cabinet post for Esther McVey, and a ‘Tory first lady’ failed to materialise.