Labour is spinning the reshuffle as the “massacre of the moderates” because of the departure of the likes of Ken Clarke, David Willetts, Sir George Young and Dominic Grieve. The newspapers are talking about a massacre of the middle class men. Yesterday certainly felt like a bad day to be a male and pale Tory. A steady stream of dark suits, including David Jones, the Welsh Secretary, and Damian Green, the policing Minister, trooped into Downing Street to be told that their services were no longer required. Yesterday, male blood was shed and today fresh female blood will take its place as David Cameron takes some giant steps towards achieving his long-term goal of ensuring at least one-third of his ministers are women. Interestingly, the PM has done so by chopping some of his closest friends – early Cameroons such as Greg Barker and Andrew Robathan are out. Also gone is Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister.
But will women fill the big roles? Only when the reshuffle is complete will we know whether females really have made substantial progress. The early signs don’t suggest anything seismic. The big new vacancy of Foreign Secretary, for example, is apparently going to Philip Hammond, a Eurosceptic who has previously suggested he is open to leaving the EU. And will the real inner powerhouse of the Tory Party be breached – the Cameron court where David Cameron, George Osborne, Lynton Crosby and Ed Llewellyn make the really big decisions? I suspect not.
A story that probably won’t grab the headlines but is one of the most disappointing of the changes so far is the exit of Owen Paterson. When he became Environment Secretary nearly two years ago after a successful stint as Northern Ireland Secretary, it was at a high point for what I’d describe as climate and European realism. Osborne had become determined to deal with the “green crap” that was making British industry uncompetitive – and all without reducing the world’s carbon footprint. Numbers 10 and 11 also wanted a pro-science ally to overcome the various Europe-wide green groups’ resistance to GM crops and other agricultural technologies.
During his time at DEFRA Paterson made big progress on green lighting these technologies. We do not yet know who will replace him, but I cannot think we will get someone who is so determined to reduce environmental red tape and Europe’s influence on countryside matters. We certainly won’t get a minister who was so pro-fracking or resilient in the face of the badger lobby.
While many of the dozen or so men leaving the frontbench – notably Ken Clarke – may feel that they’ve enjoyed a good innings and doze on the backbenches, Paterson will be one who has plenty of political life left in him. I suspect he’ll become a leading parliamentary voice for leaving the European Union. He’ll also challenge the government on the high cost of green policies where he is known to have been frustrated. Paterson has been very loyal to David Cameron since 2005 but is now free to voice what he believes is a lack of seriousness about European reform and getting rid of “green crap”. I suspect he’ll use that freedom and enjoy it.