Back in April, I wrote about the Maria Miller resignation. One of the stand-out observations that struck of how David Cameron handled (or mis-handled) the whole issue, was that it gave the impression that he ruled his government as though he was a Third-world dictator (or feudal lord): rewarding loyalty above the virtue of competence.
These points have been made about how Russia is ran: corruption and mismanagement is allowed to run almost uncontrolled as long as those lower down the chain of command are loyal to the centre. With the ruthless application of Prime Ministerial privilege seen at the reshuffle this month, the same accusations have been levelled at Cameron: that he has (seemingly inexplicably) rewarded loyalty above all else and punished competence.
Ministers who have barely put a foot wrong in office (David Willetts; Owen Paterson; as well as other lesser-known figures) have been demoted or sacked, without a real reason. For some of them (such as Paterson), the only reason that makes any sense is that he was against some of Cameron's social policy (e.g. same-sex marriage). In other words, he was disloyal.
Michael Gove's demotion to Chief Whip looks like a ruthless piece of surgery. While sympathizers argue that it was right to move him from Education after becoming so unpopular with professionals, an equally-likely explanation was that Cameron never forgot (or forgave) the blistering row Gove caused with May over the "Trojan Horse" scandal. This explanation looks more likely given Cameron's reputation for never forgetting a slight or a "disloyal" remark.
Given that there was less than a year to go till the end of the parliament, and that Gove had done all the hard work with his controversial "reforms", it makes little sense to remove him. What purpose would any new figure at Education serve, given that they would quite possibly be there for less than a year? The forced change can only have a superficial effect for the rest of the parliament; which belies Cameron's superficial intent.
Winners and losers
Considering that Cameron had up until now been so reluctant to make any significant changes to his ministerial appointments, why the sudden wielding of the butcher's knife, less than a year from a general election?
Comparisons have been made to Harold Macmillan's "night of long knives", when a third of his cabinet was sacked; Macmillan himself was ousted by his own party a year later. Similarly, the mood of ruthless desperation that clouded Thatcher's ousting of Geoffrey Howe in 1989 bears some comparison with Cameron's treatment of Gove: a clearly-able (if divisive) figure in government and in the party that has been replaced by a non-entity.
By looking at the winners and losers it is possible (if difficult) to make some sense of Cameron's motivations.
The "Greybeards" (namely, Ken Clarke and Sir George Young), as well as the "Europhiles" were the main victims to Cameron's knife, losing out to a few more Euro-sceptic figures in government: the main recipient of this was Philip Hammond being promoted from Defence to the Foreign Office; however, he is also now one of the elder members of government, having replaced William Hague.
Similarly, figures who are against Cameron's social policy have been punished (such as the high-profile Owen Paterson). Following from this, it appears the best way to be rewarded in Cameron's thinking is to be a middling Euro-sceptic who is in favour of a liberal social policy. Not surprisingly, there are very few of these types of people!
At a superficial level, the main benificiaries of this reshuffle have been younger women; but again, this is clearly only at a superficial level. Given that many of the promotions are of middling rank in any case (the most high-profile being Gove's replacement, Nicky Morgan), the effect on government is truthfully meaningless.
The main purpose that these changes serve are to get politically get rid of figures that are not fully loyal to Cameron's "vision" - whatever that is. The ministers that have remained in place are the Osborne, May, Jeremy Hunt, and Iain Duncan Smith. The latter, it is worth mentioning, allegedly put up a great fight to keep his job; which just goes to show that Cameron can be as weak at one moment as he can be ruthless the next.
The fact that Hunt and IDS remain in their places says much about Cameron's value of putting loyalty (ideological as well as personal) above competence or popularity. IDS has presided over a chaotic and disgraceful welfare "reform" programme, while Jeremy Hunt's loyal (if cringe-worthy) performance during the Murdoch scandal has been rewarded with a secure place at the high table of government.
After all this, what does it tell us about what Cameron is thinking? Cameron's "vision" is as superficial and meaningless as the appointments he has made with this latest reshuffle. It tells us that Cameron simply wants to be surrounded by figures that will not intellectually or politically challenge him.
His "vision" as such is an mutually-incompatible mess of ideas: to be socially liberal towards the gay community, but harsh and uncompromising towards the welfare state; to appear Euro-sceptic on one hand, but sell off national assets to European states on the other.
It is no wonder that Ukip are holding on to a solid bloc of the electorate; they are the one party that seems absolutely sure what its main philosophy is. Judging from the meaning of this reshuffle, Cameron's only philosophy seems to be self-preservation.