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Labour called it the “no change” reshuffle, but David Cameron’s extensive midterm shake-up marks a defining moment for the Tory party: a sign that the prime minister intends to present a much tougher side when he fights the 2015 election.
On the face of it Labour is right. The reshuffle does not reflect any change in economic course; the top ministers around Mr Cameron’s cabinet table remain in their jobs, notably George Osborne, chancellor.
But closer scrutiny of the new line-up reveals a sea-change is under way, as the prime minister quietly drops some of the soft modernising messages on which he fought the 2010 election in favour of a more rugged Tory approach.
Mr Cameron’s decision to oust Sayeeda Warsi as Tory co-chairman is symbolic of the change. Lady Warsi was the star turn at the launch of the Tory campaign in 2010 and last week pleaded for her job: “I’m a woman, I’m not white, I’m from an urban area, I’m from the north.”
Lady Warsi was a symbol of Mr Cameron’s modernised Tory party – more ethnically diverse, more female – but whatever her perceived appeal to target voters, the prime minister considered she was not up to the job and shunted her out of Central Office.
Other female cabinet members deemed to be underperforming – Justine Greening, Caroline Spelman and Cheryl Gillan – were moved sideways or out, a trend only partially offset by the promotion of Maria Miller to culture and Theresa Villiers to Northern Ireland, as well as the elevation of a younger generation of promising women to the junior ranks.
But it is in the area of policy – not image – that Mr Cameron’s reshuffle marks the most intriguing shift in emphasis.
Two of the biggest cabinet risers – Chris Grayling to justice and Owen Paterson to environment – are fervent eurosceptics who are likely to stoke tensions with the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Grayling – described by Mr Cameron’s aides as “a good rightwing appointment” – will do battle on the European Convention of Human Rights, a marked departure from the approach of his predecessor, Ken Clarke, the cabinet’s only surviving Tory pro-European.
Meanwhile, Mr Paterson is a ferocious critic of the “grotesque” EU common fisheries policy and most of the Tory party will be cheering them on.
Mr Cameron spent much of the pre-2010 period telling his party to stop “banging on” about Europe, although the issue – and the question of a referendum on EU membership – is now much more likely to feature in 2015.
Meanwhile the switch of Justine Greening from transport to the far shores of international development removes the main obstacle to Mr Cameron conducting a U-turn on his most totemic green policy: opposing a third runway at Heathrow.
The prime minister’s green enthusiasms at the last election are unlikely to be heavily promoted by Mr Paterson, the new environment secretary, who described wind farms in his own constituency as “a massive waste of consumers’ money”.
The reshuffle also suggests Mr Cameron plans a more Thatcherite approach to business, after appointing Michael Fallon, the abrasive former deputy Tory chairman, to breathe down the neck of Vince Cable, the Lib Dem business secretary.
The Tory move to the right is recognised by the Liberal Democrats and is likely to further strain coalition relations, but a spokesman for Mr Clegg insisted the coalition agreement remained in place, adding: “We have always been proud of the fact we are anchoring the government in the centre ground.”
Compared with some of the shambolic ministerial overhauls conducted by Tony Blair, Mr Cameron’s ran comparatively smoothly. Cards pinned to a board in Number 10 were used to plot the changes and the new cabinet had been formed by noon on Tuesday.
Ministers facing the sack were told in private meetings with the prime minister in the privacy of his Commons office, while those winning promotions were afforded a parade down a sun-drenched Downing Street.
Mr Cameron’s allies said the prime minister was pleased with the day’s events: “He wanted a real Tory flavour to the cabinet and that’s what he’s done,” said one. The implications of on Tuesday’s reshuffle may not be immediately apparent, but are likely to become ever clearer as the election approaches.