18 January 2018
Reshuffling The Cards.
A glance at the tea leaves.
By John Watson
I forget which commentator said that the public would not be impressed. Johnson is still in place. Fox is still in place. Davis is still in place. Hunt is still in place. Apart from some movement at education and work and pensions, things look much as before. Would bigger changes have made journalists’ jobs easier? Probably. Would they have impressed or indeed unimpressed the public? Probably not. The public cares about the quality of government and it is only in the Westminster bubble that that is less important than who actually carries it out. Still, a cabinet reshuffle is a moment to glance at the tea leaves, so we shall indulge ourselves.
Let’s start with Jeremy Hunt. Running the health service at a time of austerity is a poisoned chalice worthy of the Borgias. What goes wrong does so in the public eye. Queues at accident and emergency? That’s the fault of that fool Jeremy Hunt. GP practices turning away patients? Jeremy Hunt again. NHS ripped off for drugs? Are you sure he spells his name with an “H”?
And yet, Mrs May, a cautious woman who follows the details, decides to leave him in his highly sensitive position. That means that she doesn’t think that anyone else would do it better and she, after all, must have listened to many a discussion of plans for the health service in Cabinet. Could it be that he is better than we think? Could it be that he is making real progress in adapting the Health Service to new technologies? It is hard to know from the outside, but I do not think that I would write Mr Hunt’s tenure at Health down as a failure just yet.
The roundabout at education tells a different story. Quite apart from her contribution to education policy, Ms Greening’s position as Education Secretary buttressed the Government’s equal opportunities credentials. Perhaps, with a female prime minister, these need buttressing less than usual but Justine Greening and Priti Patel were regarded as front runners in a new generation of clever Tory women on the way up. Oh well, it was a pleasantly political correct image and there is still Amber Rudd, who seems to be doing fine at the Home Office.
What then of those who did not feature, those still frozen away from the centre of power who still have political clout? Yes, as is inevitable nowadays, the mind slips to Jacob Rees Mogg. He is certainly an odd chap with his children numbered in Latin, and his Catholic views on the sanctity of life, with which I have no more sympathy than does the rest of the population. Still, he handles questions on abortion well with his stance that he respects the law, even though he wishes it was different. He can also express himself on political issues with quite extraordinary clarity.
As an ex-Remainer (and one can only be an “ex” Remainer now since there is no prospect whatever of the referendum being reheld) I was listening to him on the television with some scepticism. The views of the “Minister for the Eighteenth Century” might be amusing, but I did not expect to hear much new. Then he startled me with his vision of the EU is a conspiracy against the poor – the poor in the UK who are deprived of cheap imports by quotas and tariffs, and the poor of Third World countries who have difficulty in accessing EU markets. Why would we want to be part of such a system?
It is not of course as simple as that, and one can formulate a number of answers to his question. Still, there was a clarity about his view which contrasted with the more nuanced lines we are usually fed. That, I suppose, is why he has not been promoted to ministerial office.
But there is a future after Brexit and Mr Rees Mogg could be an important part of it. A week or two ago, J R Thomas argued that the Government is past recovery and will inevitably lose the next election. He is not necessarily right about that. Remember how John Major won in 1992? Still, once the Brexit terms have been agreed, either the voters or her party will push Mrs May into retirement. One way or another she has been cast as the Brexit leader and, although the public will support her in this, their support will evaporate once they think she has completed her task, rather as their support for Winston Churchill evaporated in 1945. At that stage, Mr Rees Mogg will be about the right age and it is a pity that the current balance within the Cabinet means that we will not have had the opportunity to see him in a ministerial role.
Well, politics are about as easy to predict as the weather, so things may not turn out like that at all. Mrs May may be rejuvenated. Mr Rees Mogg may fall victim to some scandal or decide to devote his life to his Faith. Still, it would be a mistake to think that his rather old-fashioned mannerisms would themselves be a problem. It is not mannerisms which are important but the clarity underneath, and the public is well aware of that. When Anthony Eden was succeeded by Harold McMillan, many commentators must have thought that a man who made unrealistic assumptions about imperial power was being replaced by a dandy from the Edwardian era. They could not have been more wrong. Under the languid exterior, McMillan possessed a ruthless clarity of vision which help the country to come to terms with the end of its Imperial past. That is why he was a success with the electorate. The jury is out on Mr Rees Mogg.