Jon Craig: Cameron's message for all Tory MPs: Keep your nose clean and there’s hope yet

Written by Jon Craig on 15 May 2015 in Opinion

The PM's move to appoint John Whittingdale as culture secretary is a sop to the Tory old guard, while Grant Shapps may be lucky to still have a job

There I was, standing on the green opposite Parliament, waiting to interview Angus Robertson after his re-election as the SNP’s Westminster leader at a meeting of the party’s 56 MPs in the Grand Committee Room off Westminster Hall.

How things have changed, I thought. Yes, the Grand Committee Room indeed. Before the election, a meeting of the SNP group of six MPs could have been held in one of their offices and probably was. And Sky News, the BBC and ITV wouldn’t have been waiting on the green to interview Angus after the meeting.

And then I turned round. Behind me on the green was another TV crew, interviewing the maverick Conservative backbencher Peter Bone, no doubt banging on about the EU and David Cameron’s in-out referendum pledge. Aah, perhaps things haven’t changed after all, I concluded.

With his slim majority, I suspect the Prime Minister will be given a near-permanent headache by Peter Bone and the Tory backbench awkward squad in the run-up to that referendum. And probably afterwards too. If it doesn’t go the way the Euro-sceptics want, they’ll find something else to moan about.

Two days before I was enjoying the sunshine on the green and wondering if things would be different in this Parliament, Sir Bill Cash came into the Sky News studio. It was his 75th birthday, he told me. Well, he may be three-quarters of a century old, but his views on Europe haven’t mellowed. In his interview he claimed he and his fellow Maastricht Treaty rebels back in 1992 had been proved right.

I suggested to Bill that this Parliament might be like 1992, when within months of his general election victory on April 9 John Major was plunged into a civil war with backbenchers like him over Maastricht. I well remember Norman Tebbit whipping up the activists into a frenzy at the Tory conference, exactly six months after Major won his election victory.

Bill told me 2015 is different from 1992 because unlike then the Euro-sceptics are in a majority in the party now. I still think there’s trouble ahead, though. And with such a tight majority, the PM may have go begging to the Democratic Unionist Party for support in some Commons votes.

Which is why some of David Cameron’s more eye-catching government appointments are about party management as well as promoting talent. John Whittingdale as Culture Secretary is an inspired appointment. Nobody knows more about press regulation post-Leveson, BBC funding, sports administration and all the other big issues than “Whitto”. He speaks with sound common sense on them all, too.

But there’s no doubt that his sudden elevation from select committee chair to Secretary of State is a sop to the Tory Right and the old guard. Message: Keep your nose clean, behave and there’s hope for you all yet. Likewise, some younger MPs with a rebellious streak, like Dominic Raab and Tracey Crouch, have been forgiven.

There was also a signal  to sacked ministers with the recall for the popular and able Alistair Burt, rather harshly removed from the Foreign Office last year and now back at the Department of Health. Message to the dispossessed: Stay loyal, don’t rock the boat and you might come back.

After last year’s cull of the white middle-aged men like Alistair Burt, there were few brutal sackings this time. But it’s interesting to note some of the survivors. John Hayes’ continuation, this time at the Home Office, looks like another sop to the Tory Right. And the PM likes to look after his cronies. Hugo Swire and Ed Vaizey stay put.

The one big casualty of the reshuffle was Eric Pickles. The PM goes on about his “Northern Powerhouse” and yet he sacks a gritty northerner who led Bradford Council with distinction before becoming an MP. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Eric, though. He’s not the shy, retiring type and I’m sure he’ll feel he’s had a good run.

Another casualty is Grant Shapps. But many will feel that despite his exile to International Development he’s lucky to have a job at all after all the embarrassing disclosures about his business dealings which could have done real damage during the election campaign.

What we have seen in the Cabinet is what some have called its “Osbornisation”. Look at the promotions and the key appointments, all George’s proteges or cronies: Priti Patel, ex-Treasury minister to Esther McVey’s old job at Work and Pensions; Amber Rudd, the Chancellor’s former PPS, to Energy and Climate Change; and Sajid Javid given the high profile Business brief.

Sajid has wasted no time trying to make a name for himself, straightaway taking on the unions with his proposals for strike ballot laws, something his LibDem predecessor Vince Cable always rejected. He sees himself as Tory leadership material. How better to court MPs and the party faithful than hammering the unions? I predict a lot of noise and headlines from Sajid.

He’s nowhere near leadership material yet, however. That great test of a politician’s potential, how they perform at a Press Gallery lunch, left his audience underwhelmed earlier this year. He’s still inexperienced, don’t forget. As the Press Gallery chairman, Rob Hutton of Bloomberg, kindly reminded him, he owes his career to the expenses scandal. He succeeded Julie Kirkbride in Bromsgrove and then Maria Miller at the DCMS.

The other appointment that will generate a lot of noise and headlines is Michael Gove at Justice. Michael loves a scrap. Ask the teachers and the education establishment. Now he’ll have his sights on more vested interests, the legal profession and the human rights lobby. Watch out for more clashes with Theresa May, the Home Secretary, too.

With his new title of First Secretary of State, previously held by William Hague, and no Deputy Prime Minister this time, George Osborne will now stand in at Prime Minister’s Questions. Interesting! He’s fortunate, though, that the Labour opposition is badly scarred and bruised and hardly in any shape to give him a battering. 

But what of those who were overlooked? There was no recall for Liam Fox. Now that would have been a sop to the Tory Right! Or Andrew “Plebgate” Mitchell. I spoke to him – on the green, again, prior to a Sky News interview – on the eve of the reshuffle and he was clearly hoping for a call. But it never came.

And the defeated? We haven’t heard the last of Esther McVey either. Here’s my suggestion: Zac Goldsmith, who won a stonking majority of over 23,000 in the once-marginal Richmond Park, for Tory candidate for London mayor and then, if he wins, Esther into Richmond Park in a by-election.

With dissent ahead on the backbenches, appointing Mark Harper as Chief Whip was a shrewd move. As he showed when he was Nick Clegg’s deputy, taking constitutional legislation through the Commons, he is a conciliator and a consensual figure.

He’ll need to be to cope with Peter Bone, Sir Bill Cash and the Tory awkward squad. Not to mention those 56 pesky SNP MPs.



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Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News

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