Attacking flair, but prone to defensive howlers: farewell to Michael Gove, the David Luiz of politics

There is no better berth from which to gauge and maximise the Chancellor’s parliamentary support than that of Chief Whip

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As the cards begin to settle after the most frantic shuffling of the ministerial pack in memory, it is too soon to say whether he has dealt himself high-value picture cards or a bunch of useless deuces and fives.

It may also be premature to conclude which “he” did the dealing, though we  can make a guess.

With this Government, more so even than Tony Blair’s, the Prime Minister appears to be the non-executive chairman to his Chancellor’s CEO. Retaining an impressively hands-off relationship with workaholism, David Cameron seems content to swan around as the figurehead, leaving the vital strategic and personnel decisions to George Osborne.

While this imbalance of power may be exaggerated, the reshuffle will be analysed in terms of Osborne tightening his grip with both the coming election and eventual Tory succession in mind. And while admiring the deployment of Philip Hammond as Foreign Secretary, with the brief to bore a few fig-leaf concessions out of EU counterparts, one recalls that this human tranquiliser dart worked closely with the Chancellor as his deputy in opposition.

Given the persistent and undenied rumours that Ozzy means to become Foreign Secretary himself if the Tories win next May, not least to bank his credit from the recovery before it all goes wrong, it could well be that he plans to swap jobs with Hammond after a victorious election.

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As for the startling transfer of Michael Gove from Education to Chief Whip, the reflex is to interpret that as brutal punishment for his bare-knuckle fight with Theresa May over supposedly Islamist teachings in Birmingham, and his  former adviser Dominic Cummings’s dismissal of the PM as a vapid,  Macmillan-esque blatherer.

Perhaps the PM has tired of a colleague whose mingling of genuine attacking flair with schoolboy defensive howlers casts him as the Cabinet’s David Luiz. For all the entertainment he provided, Brazil would have done less appallingly with anyone else (and that includes the late Magnus Pyke) at centre back.

Govey has said in private that, despite the theatrical pledge to write in his own blood that he will never run for leader, he means to stay out of the fight only if his friend Mr Osborne were likely to win. In that case, he would do all he could to help his liege lord, and wait for another day. There is no better berth from which to gauge and maximise the Chancellor’s parliamentary support than that of Chief Whip.

 

Yet there are limits even to Ozzy’s influence, and once again he failed to liberate Iain Duncan Smith from the Work and Pensions portfolio for which he reportedly regards that former party leader as too dim-witted. If one middle-aged white man deserved a move to a post more fitted to his intellect – undersecretary of state at the department of shoehorns, perhaps, or peace envoy to Andorra – it was IDS.

The semi-detachment of a long disengaged William Hague may be formal recognition of the status quo, but the reprieve of IDS and removal of Ken Clarke, a reluctant if gracious sackee, tells a tale of the triumph of dull incompetence over charismatic talent which the cosmetic promotion of people with wombs cannot wholly disguise.

I once interviewed Ken and asked him about his two leadership defeats. Losing to Hague in 1997 was no surprise, he said, given the rabid Europhobia. But losing to Duncan Smith, for God’s sake, in 2003? “Mmm,” he said wryly of that Stupid Party classic, “that was a bit of a shocker.”

If the retention of IDS constitutes a rare defiance of the Chancellor’s will, he must still be delighted. To have one key bondsman keeping the Foreign Secretary’s seat warm for him is splendid. To have another in No 12 Downing Street, in perfect position to use the Chief Whip’s dark arts to ease his path to the leadership, may be counted the greatest good fortune.

Whether a vacancy arises after an election defeat or, in the event of a Tory victory, several years down the line, the odds against him landing a Bullingdon double by succeeding Mr Cameron have narrowed.

Admittedly, history counsels that Tory leaders invariably come from off the pace with a late run, in horse-racing parlance, while front runners go backwards in the straight. Even so, glancing at the most eye-catching appointments, you have to believe that the Chancellor has dealt himself a power of good.

 

The R&A is the last redoubt of the sexists

With the sudden promotion of Tory womenfolk and the Anglican Church consenting to let female clerics hold what it now feels smutty to call bishoprics, the naive might imagine that the last citadels of sexist idiocy were stormed this week.

In fact, alas, one remains unconquered. Whether it will be shortly is unclear, but on the same day as the independence referendum Scotland will host a second plebiscite of barely quantifiable importance. On 18 September, members of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews will vote on whether to allow women to join.

This matter has remained on the boil since 2009, when Louise Richardson was elected principal of the University of St Andrews, half a mile from the course. Until then, every principal had been given honorary membership. Professor Richardson, though a keen golfer, was not. Under pressure from sponsors, the club will ask its 2,500 members, each of whom has testes, to decide.

As always with an exquisitely well-balanced golfing conundrum, I turn for guidance to the man who will be commentating on the Open championship beginning tomorrow, as he has since 1723, for the BBC. On the first day of the 1999 event, in the most surreal event of my life, Peter Alliss addressed me through the telly concerning certain remarks that appeared in print that day. I beg the Socrates of the 19th hole to do so again tomorrow, preferably between 3pm and 4pm, on the question of the R&A and the little ladies. Until then, I won’t have a clue what to think.

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