David Cameron made headlines by adding two more women to his cabinet today. Less eye-catching yet perhaps more important was a move to rid himself of ministers who’ve provided the wrong sort of headlines.
For Michael Gove, who has polled badly as education secretary, being a close friend and early supporter of Cameron wasn’t enough to save him from demotion to chief whip. Andrew Lansley, whose changes to the National Health Service required prime ministerial intervention, and Owen Paterson, in charge of the Environment Department during floods this year, were fired.
Cameron has “got rid of people who were hate figures for voters who didn’t like the government,” Anthony Wells, a pollster at YouGov Plc, said in an interview. “Gove and Paterson were like lightning rods if you disliked the Tories.”
With 10 months to go until the general election, there’s all to play for. The opposition Labour Party under Ed Miliband has been unable to open up a consistent opinion-poll lead over the premier’s Conservatives. Today’s government overhaul, Cameron’s biggest since he took power in 2010, provides a chance to win over wavering voters and increase the party’s appeal.
With little time to go before the election, none of the new ministers will have time to implement new policy. Instead their jobs will be to ensure their departments are ready for the campaign.
A YouGov Plc poll on Gove last month found 55 percent of voters saying he was doing badly at education, against 23 percent saying he was doing well. Even among Conservative Party supporters, 34 percent said he was doing badly. Those ratings trail those in comparable surveys for Cameron, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
Gove, 46, has clashed with teaching unions over calls for more traditional teaching methods as he’s pushed through a revamp of the education system, with priority given to new free schools independent of local-government control. Last month, he became involved in a public spat with Home Secretary Theresa May over combating Muslim extremism in schools in Birmingham.
Lansley, 57, lost his health job in a previous reshuffle, and Cameron has now removed him from his job as leader of the House of Commons, which will be taken over by William Hague, who was foreign secretary. Paterson, 58, drew the ire of animal-rights campaigners over an aborted campaign to shoot badgers to halt tuberculosis in cattle.
Cameron added two new women to his top team. Nicky Morgan, 41, was named education secretary and Liz Truss, 38, was picked as environment secretary, both replacing older male ministers.
Tina Stowell, 47, was appointed leader of the House of Lords, replacing Jonathan Hill, who was nominated as Britain’s next European commissioner.
Unlike him, she won’t have a cabinet position, instead being one of three lower-ranked female ministers who attend meetings. That means she’ll only be paid 78,891 pounds ($135,500) a year, compared to Hill’s entitlement of 101,038 pounds, Cameron’s office confirmed. That’s because Hague will stay in the 22-person cabinet in his new position.
“There is a limit to the size of the cabinet, to the number of paid roles,” Cameron’s spokesman, Jean-Christophe Gray, told reporters in London. “Fundamentally, the question is around increasing representation of women at the most senior levels of government. We have seen the progress that’s being made today.”
Employment Minister Esther McVey was also given the right to attend cabinet meetings in the overhaul.
An ICM poll for today’s Guardian newspaper showed the Tories leading the opposition Labour Party by 34 percent to 33 percent, while a YouGov Plc poll for The Sun put Labour three points ahead.
Justin Fisher, professor of politics at Brunel University, was doubtful about whether voters would notice the promotion of women.
“I don’t think it does make a difference,” he said in an interview. “If there’s an electoral gain, it’s moving people who were clearly upsetting voters. Michael Gove clearly falls into that category.” He said Gove has become a target for dissent among public-sector workers, who staged a strike over pay last week, shutting about a fifth of schools.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin, a working-class Tory who was once a miner and who kept his job in the government overhaul, praised Cameron today for reaching out to a wider spectrum of voters.
“One of the things the prime minister has done really well is to broaden the base of the Conservative Party,” McLoughlin told reporters at a lunch in London. “We have now got doctors, nurses, teachers, all in the Conservative Party.”
Older male ministers who have avoided problems in their briefs were promoted, with Philip Hammond, 58, named as foreign secretary to replace Hague and Michael Fallon, 62, succeeding Hammond in the defense portfolio.
Fallon has taken on a series of troubleshooting roles for the prime minister as a minister in the energy and business departments and was always willing to give interviews defending the government’s policies.
Gove, meanwhile, was moved to a post that is outside the cabinet and pays less.
Gray told reporters it was “absolutely not” a demotion and said Gove will be at the heart of communicating the Conservative message in the run-up to the election.
Last night saw the departure from politics of Hague, 53, and Ken Clarke, 74, two men who have spent a quarter of a century at the top of British politics. Hague, a former Tory leader will leave Parliament at the time of the next election. Clarke, a former chancellor of the exchequer, stepped down as minister without portfolio. Among others leaving office were Attorney General Dominic Grieve, Science Minister David Willetts and Welsh Secretary David Jones.
U.K. media focused today on Hammond’s 2013 statement that he would have voted in a referendum to leave the European Union at that time, suggesting that would make him a more euro-skeptic foreign secretary than Hague.
Having pledged to renegotiate U.K. membership of the EU and then hold a vote on staying in or leaving by the end of 2017, Cameron has effectively adopted the same position, while refusing to spell it out.
In reality, Hammond will have little chance to make any difference to British policy toward the EU before the election. He is also constrained by the Tories’ coalition partners -- the Liberal Democrat members of the government oppose the referendum plan, and so it isn’t official policy.
Cameron’s nomination of Hill, 53, to the European Commission avoids the by-election that would have been required had he appointed someone from the House of Commons. Still, selecting a relatively unknown politician may hurt the U.K.’s chances of getting a senior post when the new commission is formed.
Asked last month whether he wanted the job, Hill was cited as telling the ConservativeHome website: “Non, non, non”, adding “I quite like it at home, in the British Isles.”