UK Politics

Cameron defends reshuffle changes amid Labour criticism

David Cameron has defended changes to his cabinet as he put the finishing touches to the biggest ministerial reshuffle since taking office.

The prime minister stood by Michael Gove's move from education to chief whip and said there were more women attending cabinet than under Labour.

Labour said Mr Gove had been demoted after his schools reforms "failed".

Among further appointments announced, Andrew Selous becomes prisons minister in the Ministry of Justice.

At Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Cameron said the former education secretary was the "best candidate" to become chief whip - a move that caused surprise among Conservative MPs.

He praised Mr Gove's record in his former job, saying he had achieved "a record number of academies, new free schools, standard rising across the country and reforms that will endure".

'Shabby'

But Labour leader Ed Miliband said "thousands of parents" would be rejoicing at Mr Gove's "demotion".

"So why did he do it? Is it the shortage of primary places, the unqualified teachers, or the failure of his free schools. If it has all been such a success I don't know why he sacked the education secretary."

Lord Hill
Lord Hill is the UK's pick for EU commissioner

As well as being put in charge of party discipline in the Commons, and ensuring the government gets its legislation passed, Mr Gove has been given a wider role promoting the Conservatives' policies in the media in the run-up to next year's general election.

But Michael Gove's wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, drew fresh attention to the appointment by re-tweeting a link to a Daily Mail article which was highly critical of the reshuffle.

In the newspaper, for which Ms Vine writes, commentator Max Hastings described the reshuffle as a "shabby day's work which Cameron will live to regret".

EU negotiations

But deputy prime minister Nick Clegg poked fun at the Mail's coverage of the reshuffle, which included a double-page spread of pictures of female ministers, including commentary on their dress sense, under the heading "battle of Downing Street catwalk".

He tweeted a picture of himself outside No 10 wearing a business suit, saying "he hopes the Mail approves".

Business Secretary Vince Cable also enjoyed some post-reshuffle fun, after Labour's Chuka Umunna noted that the veteran Lib Dem now had five Conservative minders.

It was actually seven by his count now, Mr Cable said.

Vince Cable, right, with new Conservative business minister Matt Hancock
Vince Cable, right, with one of his new "minders" junior minister Matthew Hancock

As his new-look cabinet starts work, Mr Cameron will join EU leaders to discuss the allocation of jobs in the new European Commission.

Mr Cameron is expected to push for Lord Hill, the former Conservative leader in the House of Lords who is the government's nomination as the UK's commissioner, to be given one of the key economic portfolios.

New Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told the BBC Lord Hill was "one of the most effective political operators we have got" and would be able to "build alliances" behind the scenes to get the reforms the UK wanted.

Michael Gove
The prime minister insisted Mr Gove had not been demoted

Amid suggestions that the Tory reshuffle has made the government more Eurosceptic, Mr Clegg told Sky News his party's influence would ensure Britain was "anchored firmly in the heart of the European Union".

Among further reshuffle changes and developments announced on Wednesday.

  • Andrew Selous, MP for South West Bedfordshire since 2001, becomes parliamentary under secretary at the Ministry of Justice, with responsibility for prisons and rehabilitation
  • Anne Milton is promoted within the Whips Office to Vice Chamberlain of HM Household
  • Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon becomes a junior minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government while Lord Ashton of Hyde becomes a whip in the House of Lords
  • Baroness Stowell, the new leader of the House of Lords, said she would be attending Friday's regular cabinet meeting amid a row about her status and pay

Unlike past leaders of the House of Lords, Baroness Stowell will not be a full cabinet member in her own right, although - like some other ministers - she will have the right to attend.

'Diminished status'

Peers from all parties took issue with the decision during a stormy session in the Upper Chamber.

Former Scottish secretary Lord Forsyth said it was "first time in history" that there would be no full cabinet minister sitting in the House of Lords and it "would not wash".

Former Labour minister Lord Cunningham said Mr Cameron had "diminished the standing and rank of this House" while former attorney general Baroness Scotland said it was a "constitutional outrage".

But Baroness Stowell said her authority had not been "diluted" and she would contribute to cabinet discussions in exactly the same way as her predecessor Lord Hill.

"I don't need status to get things done," she insisted. "I have got the authority I need".

As a result of the changes, the number of women in cabinet went up from three to five, out of a total of 22 ministers in Mr Cameron's top team.

Eleven women have been promoted across government, with three taking ministerial jobs for the first time.

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Analysis

Chris Mason, BBC political correspondent

With an election now just 10 months away this was a reshuffle less about the business of governing, and rather more about the business of winning next May.

Mr Cameron's new line-up are the faces and voices that will articulate the Conservative message between now and polling day, attempting to soothe the anxieties of those who may have flirted with UKIP or been drawn towards Labour.

It would seem impossible, for instance, that the new Education Secretary Nicky Morgan will pick quite as many fights as her predecessor Michael Gove.

Philip Hammond, meanwhile, the new foreign secretary, once voiced the possibility of the UK leaving the European Union if a renegotiation of powers was unsuccessful.

Reshuffles, on their own, rarely shift opinion polls. But the prime minister will hope the impression a refreshed cast of ministers can leave over time can make a difference.

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Mr Cameron defended the progress he had made in addressing the gender imbalance in the cabinet amid Labour criticism that 75% of his top team were still male.

"The government before had four women cabinet ministers and three additional women attending cabinet. We now have five full members of the cabinet and an additional three attending," he said.

"When it comes to Conservatives sitting round the cabinet table, I am proud to say a third are now women."

Employment minister Esther McVey told the BBC the success of "high-achieving" female politicians would inspire women across the country.

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