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Tuesday, September 04, 2012 

Nowhere fast.

If there's one thing that truly categorises a major government reshuffle, it's the quite incredible level of sycophancy displayed by lobby journalists, including those in the very top jobs. Nick Robinson last night did everything except lick the boots of David Cameron, so enthralled was he by the power being wielded by our glorious prime minister. He most certainly wasn't angling for a few tips as to who would be moving jobs, as that would be to suggest our top hacks colour their coverage according to the demands of the day, an absolutely outrageous slur I'm sure you'll agree. Elsewhere, there was a lack of honesty on the behalf of some of those called to pass comment: James Purnell and Danny Finkelstein both appeared on Newsnight's political panel, the latter without making clear his closeness to George Osborne, while the former only mentioned that he had been appointed work and pensions secretary by Gordon Brown. That he then stabbed the man who promoted him in the front, calling for him to resign, went unmentioned.

As per usual, there's a middle ground to be found between those saying that reshuffles mean little and those arguing the opposite. This particular reshuffle is clearly significant because it well may be the only one this parliament; whereas Tony Blair liked to change his ministers around yearly, often for no real purpose whatsoever but to great detriment to the government department that found itself having to work with someone new at the top almost every 12 months, David Cameron has at least resisted the temptation to micromanage. You could make a case that he's been too hands off, especially with Andrew Lansley, the latest politician to try to make the NHS his personal plaything, the end result being a welcome demotion to leader of the Commons. This said, it was Cameron who clearly give his blessing to yet another top down reorganisation of the NHS, despite both the Conservative manifesto and coalition agreement pledging no such thing would happen; and when Nick Clegg was presented with the opportunity to exercise a rare veto, he instead plumped for going ahead with Lords reform. Lansley was a disaster, his plans an expensive distraction, but the leadership went along with them.

The reshuffle also shows how Cameron is loyal to those who are willing to act as an effective shield for him. Not that there was any real danger of George Osborne being moved from Number 11, as that would signal the last two and a bit years have been an economic disaster of the government's own making, but any chance of his swapping jobs with say, William Hague, was trounced with the Olympic stadium's reaction to the chancellor last night. While everyone hates the supremely punchable Osborne and blames him solely for the double dip recession it keeps the attention away from Cameron himself. Likewise, we shouldn't be in the least surprised that Jeremy Hunt has been rewarded for his efforts in protecting the Dear Leader from assault on the Chipping Norton set front; the minister for Murdoch who so dutifully sacrificed his special adviser so that he could continue on at culture will now be secretary of state for privatisation of the health service. That Hunt clearly breached the ministerial code simply doesn't matter a fig.

As is also confirmed by the return of David Laws as education minister, replacing the lesser spotted Sarah Teather. Laws' breach of the rules on expenses was so serious, lest we forget, that he was suspended from parliament for seven days. What his return also signals is that there is no difference whatsoever between the Lib Dems and Conservatives on education policy - they're fully behind Gove's pet free schools project, the transformation of the academy system and the moving of the goal posts we saw last month on GCSEs. Soon to be announced is Gove's bringing back of O-levels, suitably updated for the 21st century so that this time the proles won't be left behind, honest.

The most apparent rightward shift is the expected dropping of Ken Clarke as justice minister, replaced by the truly lovely Chris Grayling, fresh as he is from insisting that unpaid work for dole money really does help all involved and not just the government and retailers who can't believe their luck. We shouldn't overplay Clarke's liberalising role, seeing as he failed to bring Cameron round to much of his thinking and his main idea for reform of prisons was to set the unfortunate inmates to work for an average of a £1 an hour, but his demotion to be effectively minister for television studios as he is without portfolio seems the worst of all worlds: unable to properly speak his mind for the few remaining one-nation Tories within the party and country at large. Equally telling of what's to come is the shift of Justine Greening from transport, a job she's held for a whole 11 months, to that of international development, where she most certainly won't be ostensibly in charge of airport policy. Anyone who's read Chris Mullin's diaries will note how intense the lobbying from BAA and the airlines was back then; one can only imagine how ministers are being bombarded with propaganda for a third runway at Heathrow now.

By contrast, not too much should be read into Iain Duncan Smith's apparent refusal to move from the DWP. Any idea that he's a greater friend to the sick, disabled and unemployed than Chris Grayling would have been is a fantasy, reported refusal to countenance a further £10bn in welfare cuts or not. We've yet to see whether the universal credit, a good idea in theory, turns out to be a bureaucratic nightmare in practice, akin to how tax credits were in their first few years of operation. You also suspect it will lead to yet another round of reassessment, exactly what those who are now going through the work capability assessment for the second or even third time need, although at least the person responsible for it will still be there to cop the blame should it go belly up.

Going further down the ranks, and trying not to snigger at Sayeedi Warsi joining Ken Clarke in attending the cabinet while essentially not having a job, we must note that Elizabeth Truss has also joined the education department. One of those in the 2010 intake describe as "talented", which translated means right-wing and never misses a chance to be on radio or TV, she also contributed to the "Britannia Unchained" book which so rightly described us as "among the worst idlers" in the world. Quite apart from the fact that this claim was factually inaccurate, it's always good to know what Tory MPs think of the hoi polloi, and indeed the million or so who desperately want to work longer hours but can't. Doubtless Truss is just the person to put in charge of early years development, and any suggestion this will involve the setting up of Ayn Rand schools for tots will clearly be well wide of the mark.

Overall, while not much has been changed, the general sense of direction is clear. While there was never going to be the full absorption of the David Davis agenda, the cabinet has noticeably shifted to the right. We can expect movement on a third runway at Heathrow, to the anger of Boris Johnson who wants to plant an entire new airport in the middle of a nature reserve instead, and a shift to the right on crime and prisons in an attempt to somewhat appease the likes of the Sun. What hasn't been altered is that announced plans for infrastructure aside, all of which will take years to have an effect, the coalition remains wedded to an economic policy which will almost certainly this year result in no growth. Return to David Cameron's new year message, a gift that keeps on giving, and there's talk of doing "everything it takes to get our country up to strength". Three quarters of the year gone, and we can see where the coalition has got us: nowhere fast.

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