Out there in the real world, which has other priorities than the Westminster Village, household incomes are expected to fall again. It isn’t so long since the Office for Budget Responsibility was forecasting that “living standards are set for the largest fall on record”.
And since 2015, voters have lived through the cumulative impact of Brexit, a worldwide pandemic, the first full war between two European countries in modern times, five Conservative Prime Ministers and four Tory leadership elections. The queue of recent premiers lined up at the Cenotaph last Sunday was a graphic parade of political turmoil.
As I write, Labour leads by 21 points in Politico’s poll of polls. If past experience is any guide, and tactical voting is traded off against electoral tightening, that gap will narrow. But whether it does or not, we are where we are – which is another way of saying that most voters are fed up to the back teeth with politicians in general and the Conservatives in particular.
Raise a sceptical eyebrow, therefore, at claims that Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle “targets the Blue Wall” or “abandons the Red Wall” or is “a lurch to the left” or really “a feint to the right”. If you want to know its real impact, I draw your attention to Jeremy Quin, of whom you may not have heard.
Quin, a former Managing Director of Deutsche Bank, is one of the diminishing number of MPs on all sides of the Commons who could have stayed at the top of his profession outside it, gave it up to pursue public service and was rapidly promoted to government – where he has done an indispensable job in the Cabinet Office making crises vanish before they appear (and, yes, it sometimes happens).
Now Quin is going, together with our former columnist Neil O’Brien, Will Quince, George Freeman and Jesse Norman (plus others). The brilliant last is a “lecturer, biographer, All Souls Fellow, novelist and trumpeter,” as Andrew Gimson put it. But he is not the greatest Minister of them all, if only because Nick Gibb grabs the prize. A generation of school leavers read and write better because of his heroic work.
But Gibb is “discussing taking up a diplomatic role” after the next election. Perhaps he can be appointed as the next Ambassador to Washington? Meanwhile, Quin is leaving government, though not Parliament. So his isn’t a case of quitting as soon as possible to better meet the business appointment rules. That won’t be true of others who want a new career as soon as possible.
You get the picture. Readers of a certain generation will remember Durnford’s horse in Zulu who fly from Rourke’s Drift, pursued by Colonel John Chard’s desperate cries of “don’t go” and “we need you, damn you!” The parallel isn’t exact. I cannot imagine the Prime Minister bellowing so excitedly at a vanishing dust-bowl of departing Ministers. But the image lingers.
And it points to the real significance of the shuffle – namely, a circling of the wagons by those who remain. Not so long ago, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin and Adam Atashzai, two David Cameron-era former SpAds, returned to Downing Street. Now Richard Holden, a former Cameron-period SpAd, becomes Party Chair. (Greg Hands returns unhappily to his frequently-revisited role at Trade.)
Laura Trott, another one-time Cameron SpAd, becomes Chief Secretary to the Treasury. (So John Glen goes to Quin’s old job.) With no woman in the top four Cabinet posts, the Prime Minister clearly wanted to up the numbers elsewhere. Meanwhile, another Cameron-era SpAd, no less a figure than the latter’s former Deputy Chief of Staff, holds the most senior job in government but one. That’s Oliver Dowden.
So the circling of the trucks is also a circling of the SpAds. And at the apex of this reshuffle sits the most venerable former SpAd of all – David Cameron, once Norman Lamont’s, as Chancellor, and Michael Howard’s, as Home Secretary, who began his working life as head of Conservative Central Office’s political section.
Take One on the Cameron appointment is: never go back, wrong on Europe, dodgy on China, won’t be taken seriously abroad, problems with Greensill, not accountable to the Commons, unpopular with voters, may overshadow Sunak, will alienate the right and will infuriate most Tory MPs – who will ask why the Prime Minister couldn’t find a Foreign Secretary from among the other 349 of them.
Take Two is: huge foreign affairs and domestic crisis, need a big hitter, not many of them around, knows the issues inside-out, pro-Israel without being anti-Palestinian, understands the players abroad, no further ambitions of his own, sense of public service, presentational skills, extremely able, respected by much of the parliamentary party, a big slice of which served under him – and liked by some centre-ground voters.
My concerns are, first, that more Greensill mud may be thrown and, more pressingly, that your apolitical apathetic observer will think, insofar as he clocks the move at all, “oh, he’s that bloke who lost the referendum”. Certainly, the combination of appointing Cameron and sacking Braverman will be taken, by the Boris Johnson and Liz Truss-supporting right, as giving it the two fingers.
Graham Brady will have received more letters over the years than has Santa Claus. And we may soon find out how many Tory MPs want a new leader for Christmas. Whatever happens next, friend and foe of the Tory leader will agree that Sunak shown his true colours shining through, as Cyndi Lauper used to sing.
Is this the moment in which the Prime Minister has finally positioned himself as the candidate of change – change from Johnson, change from Truss? I’m doubtful – and suspect that many voters will simply see Cameron’s return as the Tories’ last stand: “march on, join bravely, let us to’t pell-mell. If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell”.
Cards on the table. I wrote yesterday that “the core, existential and supreme issue is Islamist extremism”. It follows that, if this is the lens through which one peers, Cameron’s is a first-rate appointment. He grasps the issue as well as any politician alive, as I know from working with him in Opposition and as anyone can glean from reading his Munich Speech.
And Cameron, after all, never lost a general election, and won two referendums out of three, including one that kept the United Kingdom together – no small achievement. Meanwhile, Victoria Atkins, long on the edge of Cabinet, goes to Health with an almost entirely new team. Hers will perhaps be the biggest challenge of all.
Other than Braverman, it appears that the Prime Minister wasn’t planning to sack anyone. Therese Coffey entered Downing Street through the front door, which isn’t the usual course for a Minister due to be sacked. Steve Barclay takes her place at DEFRA. Meanwhile, there’s a kerfuffle at housing where Rachel Maclean, to the displeasure of Michael Gove and Kemi Badenoch, is being moved.
Lee Rowley, not at all a man of the Tory Left, becomes the 16th housing Minister since 2010. Esther McVey will attend Cabinet as some kind of anti-woke spearhead. Their appointments won’t stop the shuffle geting a kicking in much of the Tory media. And Braverman has yet to tell her story.
This shuffle carries on where Sunak’s earlier appointment of Alex Chalk and his party conference speech left off. There, he turned to subjects that interest him. Now, he’s turned to people he trusts, or the whips rate, or both. At Westminster, the dogs bark. Elsewhere, the caravan of public opinion moves on. And on Wednesday we have the Rwanda judgement.