Is this the most professional Cabinet in British history? We have often seen, at the top, a more distinguished group of ministers. But it is hard to think of one with closer knowledge of how their departments actually work.
About three-quarters of the 22 full members of Cabinet occupy the same or almost the same posts as they held before the general election. Even those who have been promoted – Greg Clark, Sajid Javid, John Whittingdale, Amber Rudd – have come into office with experience of the areas for which they are now responsible.
Michael Gove, as Lord Chancellor, is the only notable exception to this rule: the only minister given the challenge of a new field to master. (His predecessor, Chris Grayling, who became Leader of the House of Commons, had already shadowed that role while in Opposition.)
It is usual for a Prime Minister who wins a second term to carry out a major reshuffle. David Cameron disregarded this custom: the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and many other senior ministers remain in place.
This is one reason why the Government can press on so confidently and swiftly with a wide range of reforms. I don’t mean things won’t go wrong: it is in the nature of human affairs for things to go wrong.
But Cameron’s professionalism – understood as his strong preference for keeping ministers who know their departments in place, and promoting others to ministries with which they are already familiar – amounts to a kind of surreptitious revolution.
Our political tradition encourages a large degree of uncertainty. It gives to public opinion, fanned by a free and often disreputable press, the opportunity to place overwhelming pressure on a Prime Minister, should he or she become so unpopular that his or her command of the Commons disintegrates. At least in theory, the British Government could fall at any time.
Cameron has set out to subvert this, first by bringing in fixed-term Parliaments: a reform which removed the Prime Minister’s right to decide the timing of the general election, but made the coalition more stable and politics more predictable.
In the hands of a Prime Minister who is both competent and, so far, fortunate, this has permitted an exceptional level of control. For five years, he used every advantage of incumbency to control his own backbenchers, and increase his party’s chances of winning a second term.
His cards were quite weak, but he played them with precision and nerve, and seldom missed a chance to precipitate his rivals into error. It was difficult for either the Opposition or the press to point to ministers who were useless, or to reshuffles which were botched.
We found ourselves watching a craftsman: a Cabinetmaker putting together a group which fitted together, and which for some reason he felt no urge to dismantle at the earliest opportunity, only to reassemble it in a different way.
The usual tendency of British prime ministers to throw ministers in the deep end, and move them on as soon as they get the hang of things, is not found in Cameron. He must have decided it would be an inefficient way to run things.
Nor is he inclined, at the first sign of pressure from the press, to throw ministers overboard. The mood in Downing Street is perhaps calmer than it has been since the days when Harold Macmillan claimed, before the shadows darkened around him, to spend the afternoons reading Jane Austen in the garden.
“We deserve a second term,” one of the Cameroons (himself a craftsman of ability) told me early this year, at a time when informed (or misinformed) opinion held they had virtually no chance of getting one. Even the Cameroon harboured doubts about whether the Conservatives would be rewarded on 7th May.
For the strengths of the first Cameron government were inconspicuous. Professionalism is a self-effacing virtue. The British press is excellent at reporting when things have gone wrong, but seldom excited to hear that things are working pretty well.
And few if any commentators noticed how ruthless Cameron was being. Every last scrap of patronage was distributed among those who could serve his cause. A judicious mixture of the loyal, the able, the not so bright, young, the old, the wet, the dry, and the mildly rebellious were put on the payroll. The Prime Minister flattered members of the press by the inexpensive method of remembering their names, and by the still more unscrupulous expedient of showing a knowledge of their work.
He killed the Liberal Democrats by being kind to them. Cameron’s “big, open and comprehensive offer” was so generous they saw no way of turning it down, and indeed were keen to accept it.
How happy their leader was at that touching scene in the garden. Before they knew what was happening, they were locked in an embrace with a liberal Conservative who would not slacken his polite, kindly, even-tempered grip until he had strangled them.
The Lib Dems tried to get their own back by denying him the boundary changes he wanted: he was so pained by this that he was seen, rather unusually, to lose his temper. But their gesture of defiance did not save them from dismemberment on the night of 7th May, when the Tories gained 27 seats from them, Labour 12 and the SNP 10.
Even then, Paddy Ashdown did not understand they were being massacred, or manage to work out who the murderer was.
Labour’s defeat was blamed on Ed Miliband, and it is true he could have done various things better, and deluded himself that he was more popular than he was. But few people understood how difficult Cameron and George Osborne had made life for him: how they rendered uninhabitable the very ground he needed to occupy. For by borrowing unimaginably large amounts of money, Osborne made it impossible for Miliband and Ed Balls to promise to borrow even more.
This style of government is often quite dull: though one can see Cameron and Osborne trying to obviate that danger by making a great show of busyness, and by embarking on various reforms which until recently would have been considered impossible.
But although journalists crave crisis, respectable voters quite like dullness.
Populists will see in Cameron and Osborne an irresistible target. Jeremy Corbyn could win the Labour leadership by expressing the disgust aroused in socialists by the sight of the Conservatives’ prudent, professional, irretrievably bourgeois style of government.
For Corbyn’s supporters as for Nicola Sturgeon’s, “Blairite” is a term of condemnation, so is “Tory”, and so of course is the now rather old-fashioned “Thatcherite”.
These anathemas are hurled in order to condemn Corbyn’s leadership rivals without going through the painful process of examining whether their more moderate prescriptions might have some merit, let alone contemplate the horrific possibility that what the Tory government is doing might be beneficial.
The stronger the irresponsible forces of populism become, the more the Conservatives will be able to portray themselves as the only grown-up party: the only professionals in a world otherwise given over to vain longings and idle slogans.