- Octopus Osborne prepares to be the next Prime Minister. Had David Cameron gone down at the election, George Osborne would have gone down with him – and the next Conservative leader would possibly have been Boris Johnson. But look at the Tory landscape this morning. Cameron has already announced that he will not lead the Party into the next election. And around the Cabinet table, the Chancellor’s allies are in position: Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd, Greg Hands and Robert Halfon are former PPS’s to the Chancellor. Matthew Hancock is Osborne’s former Chief of Staff. Greg Clark is a former Treasury Minister. Osborne is preparing himself to lead the EU renegotiation, get what he wants (or present what he gets as what he wants), recommend a Yes vote, win – and end the deepest division in the Conservative Party since free trade v protection, or perhaps ever. Nor would that be the end: inflicting a third defeat in a row on Labour, as it struggles amidst a transformed constitutional landscape, would be the Chancellor’s next move on the board. Osborne read history at Oxford – not PPE – and has a historian’s sensibility. And he knows that overseeing recovery, winning an EU referendum and defeating Labour again would enlarge his entry in the history books.
- Robert Halfon becomes the most senior MP at CCHQ. But it is Lord Feldman, the Lord Woolton of our times. Cameron and Osborne keep control. Which Conservative MP best grasps the need both to help the most vulnerable and aspirational Britain – and is a brilliant campaigner to boot? Robert Halfon, of course – which is why ConservativeHome wrote before the election that he is “the best medium-term candidate” to be Party Chairman. Cameron seems to have been listening. The Harlow MP is now the most senior MP at CCHQ, and will help to focus it on the voters which the Party has the greatest difficulty reaching. Sources say that he will not be “Minister for the Today Programme” (which suggests that Chris Grayling, now Leader of the House, will do more in that vein). But Halfon will not be the most senior figure at CCHQ. Lord Feldman has emerged as Chairman in his own right. There is a precedent for an occupant of the post who both sat in the Lords and was a Chairman of lasting importance – Lord Woolton, the man who rebuilt the party post-war. Feldman is today’s Woolton, having delivered the Party from debt and been the real power in CCHQ for some time. We would prefer a Chairman who was a heavyweight elected politician in his own right, and want a CCHQ which plans for the longer-term. But perhaps Feldman can now lead a culture shift there, since Cameron isn’t seeking a third term – and will be less preoccupied with the short-term goal of election-winning.
- A better-balanced Whips Office. Cameron and Osborne have increased their patronage around the Cabinet table and at CCHQ, but in one way they have loosened their grip. As ConservativeHome recommended, the Chancellor’s men in the Whips Office, Greg Hands and Michael Gove, have gone. Mark Harper, the new Chief Whip, voted for Liam Fox as leader in 2005. Anne Milton, his new deputy, has won excellent reports since returning to government as a whip. This is astute work by the Prime Minister. He has grasped that, with a small majority, he needs the Whips to have more clout – and that means them once again possessing the authority they possessed when their relationship with the Conservative leadership combined loyalty with a certain distance, candour and independence.
- Continuity, continuity, continuity. Cameron’s last reshuffle was a failure because too many MPs were fired – too often for what seemed to be no good reason at all – and because too many of the appointments seemed tokenistic. This one feels different. At Climate Change, Amber Rudd steps up from being a junior Minister. It’s a big promotion, but she knows the department – and the move thus lacks the tokenistic flavour that some of last summer’s promotions of women possessed. Sajid Javid is well-placed to understand the needs of business – and will be helped by Cameron appearing to heed another ConservativeHome recommendation. We wanted Francis Maude to stay on in government, and he is to do so – serving as a Minister of State in the Lords at the Foreign Office and Business. Clearly, his role will be to further Cameron’s trade-boosting drive. But the former Cabinet Office chief also knows that “Biz” is one of the remaining unreformed departments. Most of Cameron’s other moves also have a calm logic about them. Why not allow Oliver Letwin an expanded version of his policy role at the Cabinet Office, now that the Liberal Democrats have gone? Why move any of your top three Ministers – or effective ones, such as Jeremy Hunt at Health? Why not promote Ed Timpson – a winner again in Crewe and Nantwich – within a department he knows and understands? Or Philip Dunne at Defence? Or George Eustice at DEFRA? Why not match up Jo Johnson, with his fine mind and liberal inclinations, with the Vice-Chancellors – or move Penny Mordaunt of Portsmouth North to Defence? These questions have all been met with the right answer.
- Priorities: building houses, reforming the BBC, promoting small business – and balancing Party interests. Cameron and Osborne want more housing. Enter Greg Clark, who steered through planning reform at CLG. A majority Conservative Government is in a position to take a long close hard look at the BBC. Enter John Whittingdale, whose appointment squares rewarding expertise (the former Culture Select Committee Chairman and Shadow Culture Secretary is formidably well-briefed) pleasing the 1922 Committee (of which he was a Vice-Chairman)…and showing that there is a place for the Right at the top table. Anna Soubry’s promotion shows that there is also a place for the Left, and underlines the importance of small business to a Conservative Government. The Manifesto promised a crackdown on undeserved trade union privileges. Enter Nick Boles, kept in his present post – but with “additional responsibility for trade union and employment law”. Whitehall reform remains vital. But instead of Maude co-running the spending round from the Cabinet Office, Hancock will manage the Cabinet Office on the Chancellor’s behalf. Managing the Commons will be a tricky business. Enter Therese Coffey, a popular and hard-working former Whip. Then there is the perennial business of balancing left, right and centre. Cameron is treating the Right generously. Mark Francois goes to Local Government. The eloquent John Hayes will be Security Minister – a post where silence can be golden. Finally, the return of Alistair Burt is a very public putting-right by Cameron of one of the wrongs of an earlier reshuffle.
We described last summer’s as a Dumbed-Down Reshuffle. This is a Grown-Up One so far. And since the Prime Minister seems either to be reading this site or thinking along the same lines, we can scarcely say otherwise: Halfon to CCHQ, Gove in a constitutional role, Javid at Business, Maude retained, Nicky Morgan’s seniority confirmed, Priti Patel promoted. We punted all this and it has happened. No Liam Fox or Graham Brady back, for sure – but there is John Whittingdale.
And finally: a big thank you to Eric Pickles, a great Conservative, for his work at CLG – keeping council tax down, steering through big savings while also keeping Tory councillors onside (most, anyway), boosting transparency. He didn’t get the return of weekly bin collections on the scale he wanted. But he leaves with the Conservatives still the biggest group in local government. There will be more for this big figure – in many senses – to do from the backbenches.
More appointments to come today.