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

Share

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fathers should have their statutory paternity leave doubled, a think tank has said  

Extended paternity leave is a baby step towards equal parenting

Louise Scodie
 

There's nothing wrong with 'sexting' - everyone has done it

Natasha Devon
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker