Leading article: Changing places, not policy

A mere reshuffle will not solve the coalition's problem with balancing the books


David Cameron and Nick Clegg intend to open the new political season with a reshuffle, as we report today. Which might be quite interesting, but it is unlikely to solve any of the Government's serious problems. Journalists and backbench MPs often demand reshuffles as a way of refreshing a government's image, but these rarely have the desired effect.

Most of Tony Blair's reshuffles were botched affairs, many of them compromised by faction-fighting with his Chancellor. The only recent reshuffle that did improve a government's image was Gordon Brown's theatrical coup in bringing his enemy Peter Mandelson back into the Cabinet in 2008.

So the Prime Minister has been wise, even if his hand has been stayed by the complexities of coalition, to put off this reshuffle as long as he has. Apart from the three changes forced on him by events that were navigated with the minimum of disruption by the promotions of Danny Alexander, Justine Greening and Ed Davey, one of the admirable features of this government has been that ministers have been given time to get on with their jobs.

However, it makes sense, at roughly half-time, to take stock and to give new MPs, especially from the 2010 intake, a chance to shine. Provided, that is, that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister do not expect such a rearrangement to restore the sense of direction that has been lost since the Budget six months ago. Because, unless Mr Cameron intends to move his ally George Osborne out of the Treasury, a mere reshuffle will not solve the Government's basic problem.

For the policy on which the coalition united, of trying to balance the Government's books in a single parliament, does not appear to be working. Rather, it seems to have helped to push the economy into a double-dip recession that might otherwise have been avoided.

In recent weeks, Tory unease about the economy has erupted in the form of a curious row about airports. This intersected briefly with reshuffle speculation, with the suggestion that Ms Greening, the Transport Secretary who opposes Heathrow expansion, would be moved – a suggestion that had the effect of forcing Mr Cameron to confirm that there would be no third runway.

This can be considered displacement activity for the simple reason that new airport capacity, even if it were a good idea, would take a long time to plan and build, and would have no effect on economic activity for at least a decade.

Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg face threats to their positions on a rather shorter timetable. Unhappy Tory MPs have spent the summer wondering about Boris Johnson, while Vince Cable has more recently done his John Inman impression – "I'm free!" – for the benefit of despairing Liberal Democrat MPs and activists.

With the coalition already in trouble, now that Mr Clegg has withdrawn his party's support for more equal-sized constituencies, such distractions are likely to get worse. Any Tory or Lib Dem who thinks that the voters know the difference between differentiation and disunity will probably receive their answer in the Corby by-election in November.

All of which puts the greatest pressure, paradoxically, on the least newsworthy of the three main party leaders: Ed Miliband. Never mind the reshuffle; this political season is the chance for the Labour leader to set out his alternative.

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