The battlelines of the next General Election are a lot clearer following the Conference season and the reshuffles. Nick Clegg – in his now annual defeat of a grassroots motion (this time on austerity) – feels he has demonstrated his control of his party and defeated those sections for whom governing is a distraction from the ‘issues’. Ed Miliband on the back of a summer fraught with the Falkirk row and union funding avoided being pejoratively characterised as weak and indecisive. For Cameron, the summer bounce and his surprising evasion of blame over the Syria vote flowed into a conference in which members were reassured of his ambition to secure a full majority – his speech was well received if light on detail. Unusually all three Leaders improved their positions at their own conferences.
Nick Clegg had a good conference. He imposed his authority on Vince Cable and managed to portray the Lib Dems as very different from the Tories, no mean feat given the reality of the Coalition, yet also persuaded the activists to change long cherished policy positions on both Trident and nuclear power. A senior Lib Dem backroom fixer said, ‘This will be seen as the year that the Lib Dems actually became a Party of the Establishment.’ Most Lib Dems feel that they may well still hold the balance of power in the next parliament. But there is a feeling of complacency about their own poll numbers.
Ed Miliband has gained a lot of respect for setting the recent political weather. The energy price freeze was one announcement that was bold and could easily have backfired. He was lucky in his choice of opponents as those energy companies that reacted immediately were easy to characterise as greedy and over-powerful. The very real concerns over long term investment being put at risk by such a heavy handed approach were lost in the populist wave of support for punishing the Big Six for their perceived corporate failings. As one Shadow Cabinet member said privately, “We don’t have an energy policy, what we have is a very popular price cap.” The Syrian debacle is also a political game that could have been a disaster for Ed but, again more by luck than judgment, he emerged stronger – appearing to those outside the Westminster bubble to have acted with prudence rather than having his own hand forced by his parliamentary party.
David Cameron was also lucky in that Nigel Farage’s attempt to dominate the politics of the right and make Europe the central focus were derailed by his own side in a media storm over sexist attitudes. This allowed the Prime Minister the space to focus directly on his own party and show them he was listening to their concerns. The fundamental success of this approach was demonstrated when Adam Afrayie’s attempt to cause trouble on Europe was crushed with the support of backbenchers – normally out to cause trouble for Cameron. The desire for self-preservation is a very powerful political driver and is a very effective weapon for any Leader.
The most significant moves in this coalition reshuffle are the LibDem changes. The sacking of Jeremy Browne will fuel speculation that he is poised to defect to the Conservative Party – particularly given the framing of LibDem briefings on the move,
e.g. him being ‘too right wing’. Norman Baker’s elevation to the Home Office has been greeted with real anger from the existing Home Office Ministerial team – in part because of his reputation as a conspiracy theorist. The briefing against him is already in full swing. Susan Kramer becoming a Minister in the Department for Transport signals no news at least, and bad news potentially, for supporters of Heathrow expansion. As former MP for Richmond she is a longstanding opponent of a third runway.
The Conservative changes are less dramatic – well signaled in advanced – but go some way to get a cadre of different faces ready to go up to Cabinet level in the future. For those in the 2001 and 2005 intake left without a job, they are now out of the running – it will be about the existing team, and the promotion of the 2010 intake taking the helm.
The other big story is the continued influence of George Osborne over promotions in departments across Whitehall. Although, there is little difference between Osborne and Cameron for now, at least. The bolstering of Matthew Hancock’s portfolio – to incorporate enterprise as well as skills – will be seen as Osborne rewarding a loyal and capable former member of his staff. In policy terms – the shake up is unlikely to have much effect – it’s hoped by insiders that it will improve comms and give a bit more punch to those Ministers on the front line – who now have potential replacements moving up the ranks.
Some big, bold moves by Miliband – the demotions of Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg – have been spun as the ‘purge of the Blairites’ – but in reality are more complicated. Miliband has rewarded loyal rising stars of the 2010 intake – with promotions for Rachel Reeves taking the Shadow Secretary of State role at DWP, Michael Dugher promoted at the Shadow Cabinet Office and Tristram Hunt moving to take the fight to Gove at Education.
With all three leaders bolstered and riding a bounce – within their own parties at least – the campaign season feels like its about to start. With the new officer ranks in place, the lucky generals are charging towards the 2015 battle.