David Cameron asserted his Tory credentials halfway through his term with Cabinet changes designed to appeal to his party’s core support, even at the risk of damaging coalition ties with the Liberal Democrats.
The premier demoted Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, the Liberal Democrats’ favorite Tory, replacing him with Chris Grayling, who favors a tougher line on law and order. Jeremy Hunt, whom the Liberal Democrats refused to back over his handling of News Corp.’s 2010 takeover bid for British Sky Broadcasting Group Plc, was promoted. The replacement of Justine Greening as transport secretary signaled Cameron may break with the Liberal Democrats and back the expansion of London’s Heathrow airport.
Cameron’s Conservatives consistently trail the opposition Labour Party in the opinion polls, and discontent has been mounting in the Tory ranks over an economic policy focused on cutting the budget deficit. Britain remains mired in a double-dip recession and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was booed at a Paralympics medal ceremony two days ago.
The prime minister has “always been a Thatcherite -- just one for the 21st century -- and he’s essentially promoted people cut from the same cloth, demographically and ideologically,” Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in a telephone interview. “None of this suggests a change in direction, simply a shift to a superior sales force.”
Cameron’s revamp was welcomed by members of his own party who’d previously been skeptical of his direction. Lawmaker Nadine Dorries, who previously dismissed the premier and Osborne as “posh boys” out of touch with ordinary voters, took to her Twitter Inc. feed to say “I’m liking this reshuffle.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell, though, said his party would be “watching carefully” Grayling at the Ministry of Justice to ensure he doesn’t take policy in a direction the junior coalition party opposes.
Cameron is trying to maintain his deficit-cutting course as Bank of England bond purchases shield him from the debt crisis engulfing the 17-nation euro region. The 10-year U.K. government bond yielded 1.62 percent today, compared with 2.18 percent on French debt of a similar maturity and 5.66 percent on Italian bonds. Britain’s economy shrank 0.5 percent in the second quarter, leaving gross domestic product no higher than when Cameron took office in 2010.
“This is a reshuffle; it doesn’t mean a change in government policy,” Cameron’s spokesman, Steve Field, told reporters in London yesterday. “It means you have different people in different jobs, the policy remains the same.”
Newly installed Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps played down the idea that Cameron had performed a shift to the political right.
“People make a huge fuss about these things and actually in truth what you’re looking for are the right people to do the job,” Shapps told ITV’s “Daybreak” program today.
Labour lawmaker Chris Bryant said on his Twitter feed that yesterday’s announcement “feels like a core-vote strategy reshuffle,” in that Cameron was appealing to his rank-and-file supporters and not to the center ground of undecided voters. Liberal Democrat lawmaker Andrew George told BBC News television the reshuffle had “to do with internal matters” for the Conservatives.
“It’s the backbench Conservatives MPs that are perhaps more important long-term than the Liberal Democrat coalition partners,” Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Manchester University, said in an interview. “He doesn’t have any control of the Lib Dems long term.”
The revamp was not as clear-cut as Cameron might have hoped. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith resisted a move to another position, making it more difficult for Cameron and Osborne to force through a further 10 billion pounds ($16 billion) of cuts to the welfare budget that may be needed as Britain’s economy grows more slowly than previously forecast.
Cameron was also locked in lengthy discussions with Sayeeda Warsi. She emerged, demoted from the job of Tory party chairwoman, though still allowed to attend Cabinet meetings. The premier also did not get rid of Clarke, 72, entirely. The oldest member of the Cabinet stays on as a minister without portfolio.
“Cameron has attempted to recharge his government, to show he can deal with the deficit with newer faces but he may be just re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic,” Bill Jones, professor of politics at Liverpool Hope University, said in a telephone interview. “He is trying to relaunch a party that is trailing in the polls.”
The latest YouGov Plc survey, conducted Sept. 2-3 among 1,716 respondents, put Labour support on 44 percent to the Conservatives’ 33 percent, with the Liberal Democrats trailing on 8 percent. That scale of lead would give Labour a majority of more than 100 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons at a general election.
Cameron also appointed a new environment secretary, Owen Paterson, who favors the use of hydraulic fracturing to drill for shale gas. Environmental pressure group Greenpeace reacted by saying he “must resist the temptation to become the minister for shale-gas fracking, bulldozing the greenbelt and deregulation,” according to an e-mailed statement from John Sauven, its executive director.
Amid the general applause from Tories, there were indications of dissent over Heathrow. In July, a group of 39 Conservative lawmakers called for two new runways to be built at Heathrow to increase passenger capacity and help spur economic growth. The promise not to expand, which was in the coalition agreement, is only valid until the next election in 2015, so Cameron is free to switch stance after that.
Greening, whose west London electoral district is under the airport’s flight path, had dug in against a third runway. She was replaced by Patrick McLoughlin, whose constituency is 150 miles away in the English Midlands.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, a Tory, attacked the decision to remove Greening and said it would be a “profound mistake” to build a third runway at Heathrow.
“There’s lots of stuff been coming out of Whitehall to suggest that a U-turn is in progress,” Johnson told Sky News today. “All the pressure from businesses to do the third runway -- that’s where the Treasury seems to be focusing its hopes.”
Conservative lawmaker Zac Goldsmith, who represents a west London district, called on the government to clarify its position on Heathrow and said he stood by his pledge to resign and trigger a special election if the government changes stance.
The government has “got to get off the fence,” Goldsmith told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program. “It’s not fair to voters, to communities, to constituencies like mine to keep people in a state of limbo. People need an honest answer. Have they changed their mind on Heathrow? Yes or no? And anything less than that is too ambiguous in my view.”
One Tory lawmaker, Eleanor Laing, was asked by BBC News television yesterday if the changes were likely to quell future rebellions.
“I very much doubt it,” she replied.