Steve Richards: It's not the names that matter but the policies

In the past three decades, only two reshuffles have made a big difference to the fate of a government

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The early days of September are ones of fleeting hope for a government in difficulty. Leaders return refreshed from holidays. They look trim and gently tanned. In turn, the precise rhythms of the political year give them space after the summer break to make their case once more, and to suggest a new sense of purpose and direction.

Evidently David Cameron and George Osborne are determined to convey that seasonal sense of resolution over the next few days. Nick Clegg tried to do so last week, but blew the chance with an unsubtle call for a wealth tax that had no detail or chance of implementation. When it comes to the arts of policy-making, leadership and political positioning, Clegg's inexperience is increasingly exposed in the context of the Lib Dems' partnership with a party of the radical right, and the economic crisis. Cameron and Osborne are not much more experienced but they read the rhythms of politics more astutely. This week, they focus on growth and the reshuffle, the latter being delayed until today, partly in order for the message about economic growth to get a hearing first.

Most of the message on growth has already had one hearing. A significant part of the package was trailed in the summer. If this were the New Labour era, the BBC would be busy commissioning a Panorama on "spin", accusing the Government of re-announcing policies. I make no such accusation now, as I did not then. In an era of insatiable media demand, re-announcements are unavoidable.

As far as the Coalition is concerned, indications of some government activity are better than none at all, but its misguided course was set after the 2010 election and is very hard to change now. Following the election, the most ideologically driven set of ministers since the 1945 Labour administration acted as if government activity was always the problem and never part of the solution.

The cancelling of the government loan to Sheffield Forgemasters immediately after the election stands as an emblem of that early ideological verve. That destructive act attracted publicity because the victims were in Clegg's constituency but the policy was illuminating irrespective of the local MP, showing a disdain for government intervention, even a loan to a reliable firm with a clear strategy for worthwhile expansion. That original policy was subsequently revised, not least because Clegg recognised belatedly the need, but the early instinct was clear: "do nothing" from the centre on the basis that theoretically empowered local communities and markets would lead us to recovery.

Hostility to active government defined the early radical policies to such an extent that the reshuffle will only make a difference if the policies are changed. This is unlikely. The policies now take legislative form and are being implemented. At its heart is Osborne's economic policy, which he describes as fiscal conservatism and monetary activism. No doubt he plans to be less fiscally conservative in the run-up to the election and will announce tax cuts to woo targeted voters. But that is still in the distance. For now, he stands more or less behind his original strategy, punctuated by moments of panic such as the un-costed reversal of the rise in fuel duties and this week's limited growth package.

Osborne's approach will be buttressed by the formal return, in some capacity, of David Laws, the most orange of the Orange-Book Liberals. As Laws is consulted on a near daily basis by Clegg, Danny Alexander and members of their entourages, the only difference is that his advice becomes official rather than unofficial. Meanwhile, police commissioners will be elected half-heartedly in November, and GPs prepare to become reluctant accountants, legal experts and entrepreneurs in an expensively haphazard reform of the NHS. Further sweeping spending cuts are planned before the current round is close to implementation. Follow the policy trail and not the changing personalities in a government. If the trail leads in the same direction after the reshuffle, the crises whirling around the Coalition will intensify.

Over the past three decades, only two reshuffles have made a profound difference to the fate of a government. When Gordon Brown brought back Peter Mandelson in 2008, he made it almost impossible for Blairite dissenters to remove him, a game-changing move. And in 1981, Margaret Thatcher purged her Cabinet of the dissenting "wets" and elevated like-minded allies such as Norman Tebbit. Off she went after that, though not as fast as the Coalition in terms of radical evangelism. Until her final years, Thatcher had a genius of knowing when she had the space to be assertive and when she needed to be more cautious. In the late summer of 1981, as Labour fell apart, she knew she had the space.

The mistake of Cameron, Osborne and Clegg was not to recognise that they danced precariously on a tiny, cluttered stage in the summer of 2010, with the backdrop of a hung parliament and the epoch-changing financial crisis. They needed to behave with expedient humility. Instead, they acted as if they had all the space in the world to complete the Thatcherite revolution. Nothing they do this week can re-write what they did in the summer and autumn of 2010, not least because they do not want to change the script. The dark days of another autumn are on their way.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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