Tuesday, May 12, 2015
A One Nation PM and his Thatcherite Cabinet
Take the early appointments. Michael Gove at Justice, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Defence's Michael Fallon - all have articulated routinely Thatcherite positions. Hammond, who favours leaving the EU, is probably the most euro-sceptic of modern Tory foreign secretaries. Gove is a Thatcherite radical par excellence, delighting in challenging and doing battle with public sector institutions and relishing confrontation over emollience. Michael Fallon cut his teeth as a Thatcherite junior minister in earlier administrations. Iain Duncan Smith has been a radical and right-wing reformer of welfare for the past five years, and won the Conservative leadership as a definably Thatcherite candidate who had led backbench rebellions over Europe.
Then we have Chris Grayling. He may not be running a department any more, but his post as Leader of the Commons owes much to his right-wing credentials and the belief that he is well placed to act as a conduit between the all important right-wing and activist backbench MPs and the government.
Theresa May was once the party chairman who described the Tories as "the nasty party" (or at any rate accurately saw that that was the widely held perception), but she has also been a vigorous Home Secretary taking on the vested interests of the police and pursuing an approach that would have set well in Thatcher's governments - better than the late PMs own largely centrist Home Secretaries.
And then consider the newcomers. John Whittingdale, whose only previous government role has been as private secretary to Mrs Thatcher herself, and who can be counted the most "BBC sceptic" Culture Secretary to hold the post. Right-wingers who believe in the virtues of free market foreign ownership - especially Rupert Murdoch's - over home-funded media will be delighting in Mr. Whittingdale's appointment. Sajid Javid at Business and Priti Patel, who attends cabinet, are also among the more Thatcherite of the Tory Party's MPs, hence their frequent trumpeting by conservative commentators. (And able as they are, I do wish we could stop hearing about their parents' struggles as if somehow they were the experience of the children).
In contrast, there are no cheerleaders for One Nation Conservatism in the cabinet. Moderate ministers such as Nicky Morgan and Amber Rudd mark a more emollient conservatism than most of their cabinet colleagues, but that in itself hardly stands as a vigorous and articulate proposition for One Nation Conservatism.
Finally, where stands the most important member of the cabinet after Cameron himself? George Osborne is a strategist of skill, and has been a largely canny Chancellor in his pursuit of austerity, but just enough. His actual political view is difficult to define. He's no One Nationer, but he is also no clearly fixed Thatcherite either. Like his friend the Prime Minister, he is an arch pragmatist, seeking office for a party which prides competence over ideology - a very traditional Conservative approach.
So how seriously should we take Mr. Cameron's One Nation protestations? To some extent, his Thatcherite cabinet has a degree of inevitability about it. His new appointments have been made with competence and effectiveness as much in mind as any desire to appeal to a noisy right-wing backbench dominance. Javid and Patel not only represent a welcome diversity, but more importantly have reached their posts on the basis of their obvious ability and - particularly in Ms Patel's case - appeal as people who can speak human. Whittingdale has more experience of dealing with and inspecting issues relating to culture, media and sport than any other MP. To bring his experience into cabinet was a fine move. Fallon and Hammond are intelligent men who have only been in their offices for a year or so and have been making clear marks in running them - keeping them in place was redolent of Cameron's praise-worthy desire for government to have continuity of ability and experience.
Mr. Cameron's Thatcherite cabinet thus reflects the reality of modern Tory politics. The Lady's legacy was a whole generation of activists who shared her ideology and who have now matured into the upper ranks of government. It's not so much that David Cameron wouldn't want to appoint One Nation ministers. It's just that Ken Clarke's departure marked the end of that particular beast. If the Prime Minister really is a One Nation Conservative, then we will see the consequences of that in another decade or two. Just as Thatcher governed with plenty of Tory lefties but still imposed her signature on it, so Mr. Cameron may be able to do so in reverse, whilst still utilising the abilities of a pretty first-rank cabinet. The Tories, though they don't know it yet, may be in for another gradual transition.