Reshuffle: One Nation Toryism has gone to meet its maker

by Stephen Tall on July 15, 2014

David Cameron - Some rights reserved by The Prime Minister's OfficeDavid Cameron’s extensive reshuffle of the Tory ministerial ranks will continue today. Last night we learned of the casualties; today will be dedicated to the winners. But there’s no doubt at all about the biggest casualty: moderate, One Nation Toryism.

Ken Clarke, famously dubbed the sixth Lib Dem cabinet member, has gone. Too sensible to be left in charge of the Justice ministry he was exiled to the Cabinet’s fringes in 2012; now he has been retired completely. William Hague – transformed from a right-wing Tory leader who scaremongered about Britain becoming a ‘foreign land’ into a pragmatic Foreign Secretary willing to champion causes such as war rape ahead of EU renegotiation – has taken voluntary redundancy.

Clarke and Hague are the household names. At least as missed will be those few have heard of, such as Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General. He’s no-one’s idea of a pinko-liberal, but he did appreciate and understand the importance of international law and human rights. Science and Universities minister David Willetts – the original Tory moderniser and one of the most intellectually curious politicians around – has been despatched. So, too, have moderate Tories such as Greg Barker (a Tory who believes in climate change) and Damian Green (a Tory whose pro-immigration sympathies has already seen Cameron sideline him).

True, Cameron has also shunted Environment Secretary Owen Paterson – once tipped as a likely future leader by Tory right-wingers – out of the cabinet; though the IQ gain from his departure will be offset by the call-back for fellow right-winger Liam Fox, forced to resign in 2011 for allowing an advisor to abuse his access to the then defence secretary. (I think, though, Tim Montgomerie is right to suggest Cameron may come to regret Paterson’s despatch: a potent right-wing rival, lacking until now, has the freedom of the backbenches to make his pitch.)

And yes, there will be newer, fresher Tory moderates who today are favoured by Cameron – perhaps Anna Soubry or Gavin Barwell or Robert Buckland or Jane Ellison. It won’t all be one-way traffic in the right’s favour.

But the direction of travel is clear. And despite the claims of some like Lord Ashcroft that this reshuffle is about the optics not the politics, I’m afraid I just don’t buy it. Hague’s replacement as Foreign Secretary looks set to be Philip Hammond, who last year said he would vote for the UK to leave the European Union if a vote were held now. And Grieve’s exit is a clear signal – you might call it a dog-whistle – that the Tories will make withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights a manifesto pledge. This is a rightward tilt for the Tories, a statement of intent from Cameron that liberal Conservatism is dead.

Nick Clegg has wisely eschewed the chance of combining his reshuffle of the Lib Dem ranks with that of Cameron’s: any changes made, such as the promotion of Jo Swinson, would have disappeared without trace given the scale of the Tory overhaul.

In one sense the reshuffle is helpful for the Lib Dems – Cameron’s done more to differentiate us from the Tories than we could have hoped.

In another sense, it’s less hopeful. My view remains that the Tories will emerge from the next election the single largest party. If that happens, it’s hard to see any possible Lib Dem accommodation with Cameron’s party in which case the Lib Dems will have to do what we can to thwart the Tories from the opposition benches. While that my keep our liberal hands cleaner, it’s likely to mean more authoritarian government policy enacted.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.