Westminster was all ahoo as all the three main political parties shuffled their ministerial pack. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s out? And what did we learn? In the first of a new weekly series, Richard Speight looks back at the 5 things we learned from politics this week…
1. There goes the fear
Did we see the bonfire of the Blairites this week?
Your answer to this question depends on your position on the political spectrum. Those on the right would say ‘definitely’ and no doubt accompany this statement with some turgid, humourless, focus-grouped-to-death ‘quip’ about Len McCluskey (I’m looking at you Pickles). Those of a leftish persuasion would cite the promotions of Douglas Alexander, Tristram Hunt and others as evidence to the contrary.
For what it’s worth I lean more to the latter, but in a sense it doesn’t really matter. The change in attitude is all. There was a time where the fear of being perceived as ‘Red Ed’ would have prevented such changes. No longer. Miliband may not embrace that dreadful epithet but it seems he no longer fears it. The people who fear reds under the bed at Downing Street just because Ed holds the unorthodox opinion that perhaps some people deserve help and support from government aren’t going to vote for him anyway. And Marcus Roberts’ analysis on Labour’s Next Majority shows that he doesn’t need them. The only thing Ed has to fear is fear itself.
2. Education, education, education
Amid the chaos and the cruelty of the coalition’s health and welfare reforms, it’s easy to overlook Michael Gove’s ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ nostalgia-fest over at the department for education.
But the anarchy promised by the free school revolution, the bizarre and pernicious curriculum changes and the relentless smears are too damaging to go unchallenged. Stephen Twigg is one of Westminster’s nice guys but not even his most trenchant supporters would say that he has landed too many blows on Michael Gove.
Step forward Mr Hunt. What do we know about the new pugilist entering the ring? He’s smart, an able communicator and as telegenic as you’d expect from one of the new generation of all-action TV historians. That will serve him well. He’s also an eminent academic in his field which should allow him to effectively challenge the intellectual narrowness of Gove’s jolly-hockey-sticks, Rule Britannia anachronism.
And importantly he has served his time in the education team with the important brief of careers education, on technical vocational education for 16 to 18-year-old and youth services – as he pointed out in an interview “everything Michael Gove is not interested in”.
To challenge Gove’s ‘vision’ for education Labour must be focused on how education can give children the skills we’ll need to attract the industries we want. It must focus on alternative educational pathways, not just university (Ed Miliband’s forgotten 50 per cent). And it must make Labour’s vision for education an election-defining issue again.
3. Steady as she goes
In the Labour government, it was often seen as wise to shoot a cabinet minister from time to time to encourage the others. Not so for David Cameron whose cabinet team has been remarkably stable (and despite his noble ambitions, remarkably male) for his tenure as PM. This has given ministers the stability to pursue their reform agendas and quite comprehensively mould their departments – essential given the incredibly ambitious reform project and the incredibly parlous hold they have on a parliamentary majority.
But it has also created a cadre of ambitious, powerful ministers with their eyes on the top job. Commentators immediately leapt on the reshuffle as the advance of the Osbornites but May, Gove and Hammond have all kept their power bases intact.
There is no easy succession. And there is always the clownish king over the water to be considered. Indeed the only leadership contender to lose face this week was poor Adam Afriyie who increasingly resembles a man out of his depth in a paddling pool.
Perhaps Cameron welcomes a state of creative tension from his underlings, but the armistice will not hold forever. As the PM moves closer to a peaceful retirement of unlimited Fruit Ninja time, the knives will be unsheathed. Who’ll win is anyone’s bet, but it will be a bloodbath.
4. Royal Fail
Popular capitalism is back. The Tories are temporarily thrown off course by Ed’s energy price pledge. “It’s a con!” bellows Dave, as he bravely attempts to defend the right of energy companies to continue their price gouging.
Perhaps the answer is popular capitalism. Right-to-buy has assumed an almost mythical status amongst a certain kind of Tory, perhaps a postal-owning democracy could be the answer for this generation. Certainly the Tory rhetoric around the Royal Mail privatisation suggests that, and it does carry a certain amount of resonance.
But as critics round on the Royal Mail fire-sale for undervaluing the institution we should look back to the privatisation of the utilities. When British Gas was privatised in 1986, 1.5 million people bought 135p shares. A look at the energy market today will give you a hint as to how well popular capitalism has served the public trust.
5. Pressing matters
Press regulation has been off the front pages for a while but it is about to make an unwelcome return (for Cameron at least).
Miliband versus the Mail brought the essential seediness of much of our political comment back to the fore and Maria Miller’s rejection of the press’s royal charter model on Tuesday means that the government is now seeking cross-party agreement on a revised royal charter.
The trial of Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks and other News International cronies starts on the 28th October. With the Labour party emboldened by public support for Miliband’s furious rebuttal of the Daily Mail’s smeared, and round the clock coverage of the phone hacking trial, this is unlikely to be the time for delicate parliamentary back and forth.
Has the reshuffle taken Labour further towards the left? Join us on twitter for Fabian Question Time using the hashtag #fabianQT