On balance, the composition of the government’s senior ranks is slightly improved. There will be positive changes to environment with the appointment of the talented Owen Paterson and to justice, where Chris Grayling’s promotion to replace Kenneth Clarke is an unambiguously good move. But I don’t buy the view that the change at Transport will mean more airports any time soon.
Yet there were also many strange decisions. The prime minister was surprisingly weak. He failed to sack several people properly, including Lady Warsi, who will take up a newly created role and retain cabinet attendance rights, and Clarke, who becomes minister without portfolio, also with cabinet status. This wasn’t exactly leadership.
And why did Cameron try (and fail) to move Iain Duncan Smith? There are issues as to whether some of the technical aspects of his welfare reforms would work – they may require an unfeasibly sophisticated computer system – but it would have been silly to force him out at this stage. It also was a mistake to appoint David Laws, generally a good egg, to education: by dividing power, it will merely make Michael Gove’s already extremely tough job even harder.
Another blow was the departure of Nick Herbert from the government. A talented free-marketeer, he was the man responsible for trying to reform prisons and introduce elected police commissioners, a sure way of making sure that the police begins to follow the public’s priorities.
There are, however, some good news lines buried within this overall story of broad continuity marred by mishaps. Lots of good people have been brought in at the lower end of government, though it is doubtful that they will be empowered to make a real difference. The ultra-sound Michael Fallon is a minister at the Department for Business. A number of good, radical MPs from the 2010 intake have been promoted to ministerial jobs, including the excellent ex Deutsche Bank executive Sajid Javid at the Treasury, the brilliant Liz Truss at education and a few others.
My great worry is that – with the exception of Truss, who has found her berth at the reformist Department for Education, many of the talents of these younger ministers will be wasted. They will report to bosses – such as George Osborne or Vince Cable – who have no intention of adopting the radical free-market reforms this country needs. I hope I’m wrong – and I certainly hope that some of these MPs end up running their party one day. But in the meantime, it is the seniors, not the juniors, who run government departments, and the old order remains firmly entrenched.
It is undoubtedly a coup for the government that Paul Deighton, the ex-Goldman Sachs banker who is currently the CEO of the London 2012 Olympic Organising Committee, is being brought in as a Treasury minister in January. As ever, however, I am sceptical that he will be given the power and authority to make more than a marginal difference. All in all, an underwhelming reshuffle from a government that refuses to change direction.