UK Politics

Cameron unveils 'war cabinet' for general election battle ahead

Chess pieces Image copyright Thinkstock

The new Conservative team around the top table could best be described as a "war cabinet" - and the battle they are fighting is the next general election.

Michael Gove, shuffled out of his beloved education department, gave the game away when he said now was the time to "embed beneficial reforms" - rather than to embark on a new round of radical change.

That suggests we are moving from the policy phase of government - his own hell-for-leather introduction of free schools, the controversial NHS restructuring, a new settlement on pensions and the launching of welfare reform - to the presentation phase.

In other words, how to make the agenda of the Conservative part of the coalition more palatable to the voting public.

In the absence of a second coalition agreement, some of the party's big hitters will be able to think about what's in the next Conservative manifesto, rather than simply implementing the last one.

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Media captionMichael Gove: "It's a wrench leaving the job that I love"

Michael Gove didn't volunteer to leave his former department - with his customary eloquence, he confided that David Cameron had to "explain the allure" of the chief whip's job to him.

That explanation included the enhanced role of proselytising for his party on the airwaves - but he was also closely consulted on the choice of today's new ministerial team.

Some in that team might not be as closely involved as Michael Gove in devising the Conservative message - but they are seen as potentially very effective messengers.

There has been an immense amount of spinning of the statistics when it comes to the number of women at the top of government.

The bald fact is that there's a brace of new women at the very summit - the number of female full members of the cabinet goes up from three to five.

Those who are permitted to attend cabinet meetings rises from five to eight.

Seventeen of the 22 cabinet members are men.

But the Conservatives say that 30% of their cabinet members are women (there are no female Lib Dem secretaries of state) and that's very nearly true - 5 of 17 is 29%. (Michael Gove in his old job would have lauded my mastery of basic arithmetic).

However, the more significant shift today wasn't in the gender mix - but in the tone that we will hear as a result.

Polling - including surveys commissioned by the Conservatives' former deputy chairman, Lord Ashcroft - suggests women tend to be more downbeat about economic prospects and the cost of living than men.

So it's no coincidence that two relatively young working mums who might be perceived to understand those concerns - Liz Truss and Nicky Morgan - were given big promotions.

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Image caption Ms McVey worked as a TV presenter before entering politics

And while the employment minister Esther McVey failed to secure a new job for herself, she will be given an enhanced role in speaking to the media.

Her timbre is not that of an old Etonian - she was born in Liverpool, has a background in the tabloid end of television as well as in business, and she speaks a little more like some of the very voters the Conservatives hope to attract - those whose aspirations are somewhat higher than their squeezed incomes.

The party, however, briefly exposed an Achilles heel.

While proudly proclaiming promotions for women, it transpired that the new leader of the Lords - Baroness Stowell - would be paid less than her male predecessor.

That's because of a limit to the number of taxpayer-funded cabinet salaries -so, rather hurriedly and inelegantly, the Conservative Party said it would cough up the difference itself.

While we might hear softer, more emollient or frankly less plummy Conservative voices between now and the election, behind the scenes there are plenty of ministers who will have time on their hands to draw up dividing lines with their current coalition partners as well as with Labour.

As well as Michael Gove being freed from the weight of ministerial office, Francis Maude, Oliver Letwin and Boris's brother Jo Johnson at the cabinet office, Grant Shapps - minister without portfolio but remaining as Conservative Party chairman - and William Hague as the new leader of a legislative-lite House of Commons - can all be deployed on campaigns.

The former foreign secretary, with his distinctively elongated vowels, is likely to be swapping exotic travel for trips to northern marginals.

But while this reshuffle clearly has the distinctive mark of David Cameron - those he didn't find convivial were pushed towards the exit door - some of the restructuring could so easily have been devised by the election strategist Lynton Crosby.

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Image caption Mr Cameron is keen to win over voters who have opted for Nigel Farage's UKIP in recent elections

With at least one eye on stemming support for UKIP, "soft" and "emollient" are not likely to be the best words to describe the tone towards the EU.

While the eurosceptic Owen Patterson has been badgered into leaving government, the new foreign secretary last year answered in the affirmative when asked if he would consider voting to leave the EU if there weren't substantial reforms.

Today Philip Hammond was more diplomatic - saying that while renegotiating the UK's relationship with the EU would be a priority, he wouldn't be issuing "threats".

It then transpired that Downing Street had also tried to persuade the eurosceptic Liam Fox to join the Foreign Office, too - though he turned them down.

It's perfectly possible that Philip Hammond won't still be at the Foreign Office if the Conservatives win the next election - and if there's a referendum in 2017.

But during the 2015 campaign, having a high-profile potential "no" voter at the heart of government might just persuade some of those mesmerised by Nigel Farage to return to the Conservative fold... or at the very least, as a minister told me, "reduce the reasons people might have to vote UKIP".

That's not to say today is simply all about elections rather than government.

Administrations which don't look competent often pay a political price.

To be fair, most of those fast-tracked for promotion haven't put a foot wrong in more junior roles.

Though Liz Truss previously had to backtrack on child care reforms, that was due to Lib Dem resistance rather than incompetence.

But while part of their role will be to help change the style of government, under greater scrutiny they will still have to deliver on the substance.