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Cameron ends rosy days of coalition

September 06, 2012

LONDON: This was a reshuffle by the Conservative party for the Conservative party, designed to make the party more at ease with itself, and allow it to be seen as a distinctive right of centre ideological force at the next election.

It is not a reshuffle for the coalition, or more cohesive government. In his choices Cameron has shown little deference to the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, and instead paid attention to the demands of his parliamentary party.

All five Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers may have been retained in their current posts, but when the quintet look round the table at the first meeting of the cabinet this afternoon, they will see a constellation of forces ranged against them has strengthened significantly.

Indeed some Liberal Democrat MPs privately questioned whether Nick Clegg had bargained as hard as he could in this reshuffle, and whether he allowed too much to pass so long as his chief political prize — the return of David Laws to government — was secured.

The famous five now confront Owen Paterson at the department of environment, opposed to renewable subsidies and supportive of shale gas. He will face battles ahead with the energy secretary Ed Davey, as well as with Clegg on EU issues such as fisheries.At the Ministry of Justice, instead of the liberal Kenneth Clarke they face Chris Grayling — “a man who does not have a liberal bone in his body” according to one Lib Dem MP on Tuesday.

At the Department for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, the former chief whip, may be an agnostic on aviation — he has a fear of flying — but he will do Downing Street's broad bidding. In the words of the London's Conservative Mayor Boris Johnson, Justine Greening can only have been shifted from transport after just 10 months to make way for a new policy on a third runway at Heathrow built round a new all-party commission on the future of aviation.

Equalities, a brief previously held in the home office by the Home Secretary Theresa May and the Lib Dem Lynn Featherstone, has been sent to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, one of the few departments in which no Lib Dem minister serves.At the same time it emerged that Vince Cable, the business secretary, was not consulted over the appointment of Matthew Hancock and Michael Fallon in his department. Conservative sources were openly briefing that the two men had in part been appointed to keep a hawkish eye on Cable as the battle hots up over deregulation as the primary route to growth.

The extent to which Vince's wagons are in reality being circled by hostile Tories can be exaggerated. Hancock is an intellectual who can have a serious debate with Cable, and David Willetts the moderate higher education minister remains in place. He has a serious relationship with Cable. But the net effect will be that Cable, and his Lib Dem colleague Jo Swinson, will have to argue their corner that much harder at business to get an agreed policy.

It is also strange that Nick Harvey — the respected Lib Dem armed forces minister — has been sacked by Clegg, meaning they have vacated the defence department entirely. Harvey's dismissal came out of the blue and has hit him hard since he was intimately involved in drawing up a policy on the replacement for trident nuclear submarine programme due to be published next year.

Harvey had good relations with the defence secretary Philip Hammond, but was told by Clegg that he wanted to focus his finite ministerial resources on those departments from which they could get most media traction.

The stronger counter argument is that with Davey as energy secretary, the Lib Dems’ green agenda was well covered. Harvey expressed some of his unease, saying: “ I hope very much that the absence of a Lib Dem voice in the Ministry of Defence does not make it more difficult to ensure that the review comes up with the options we would like”.

By arrangement with the Guardian