The Cabinet reshuffle has set the tone for the second half of this Parliament, and gives a guide to the shape of the next General Election.
By leaving George Osborne in place, the Prime Minister has set out his stall to stick to an economic approach based on cuts and Austerity. This plan is now set in stone, and the Coalition is firmly chained to it.
The Green credentials of this Government, already looking very shabby, have been firmly cast away. Justine Greening, firmly opposed to a third Heathrow runway, has been removed as Transport Secretary. The Government is already talking about reviewing Airline capacity in the UK, a real insight into their current thinking. The Coalition agreement does include a no third runway clause, but increasingly that whole document is looking as durable as one of Gerald Ratner’s earrings. In addition, the Conservative back-bench rebellion over wind farms have borne fruit. A wind farm sceptic is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
David Cameron is shaping his Cabinet to supply the red meat that Tory back-benchers and local activists are demanding. I believe we will see further benefit cuts, more anti-ECHR rhetoric, additional curbs to union rights and range of other policies to keep the Tory faithful cheering. He has realised he cannot win the election on the economy, so a line up of traditional dragons the Tories can slay is being prepared. David know full well he can cut back the public sector, attack benefit claimants and when the left stands up to this, he has created a common enemy. With the media largely behind him providing PR support, it could be an effective strategy.
The Liberal Democrats are in an appalling position. They know they have the power to pull down the Coalition. They also know they are politically dead whenever the General Election happens. David Cameron can push and push, and if they complain too much they will be left with a single-shot revolver on their desk. If they don’t like it, they know what the alternative is. Every time Nick Clegg’s MPs have caved in – the health bill for instance – they become weaker and weaker. They are now pitifully weak.
This shift has serious consequences for Labour. Labour has in effect been shadowing much of the Conservative’s policies. When the Coalition promises Austerity, Labour hasn’t fully rejected it. Labour simply says it would cut a bit less sharply and more fairly. When major cuts to disability benefits are on the cards, Labour says that they do need reform, but they wouldn’t do it quite like that. The timidity in offering a principled alternative is something that Ed Miliband may regret in the future. He has been good tactically, but on the strategic aspects of creating a credible alternative Government in time for the 2015 General Election, he has done much less well. How will Labour handle a media-led campaign against the ECHR, and a new populist attack on benefits? The record to date suggests very passively.
To conclude, this reshuffle is a serious game changer. Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats that haven’t yet turned into invertebrates need to work hard together to challenge what David Cameron wants to offer the country. If they don’t, Britain may be sleep walking into a nightmare.