15 Jul 2014

Reshuffle leaves Cameron with dangerous lack of legal experience

David Cameron may well have gone  further than any prime minister in history in promoting new MPs to his cabinet (i.e. those first elected at the previous election). Three MPs elected in 2010 now have high-profile cabinet jobs: Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan and Liz Truss. All are tricky jobs that have caused problems for their predecessors: culture, education and Defra (environment).  Cameron is taking a risk, here, which may backfire.

A lot more dangerous could be the lack of legal experience in the upper ranks of the government. Three QCs have left office (Clarke, Grieve and Heald), and I think this is probably the first time in history that no QC will be sitting around the cabinet table (though presumably the new attorney general, Jeremy Wright, will very soon become a QC). This is all the more worrying when the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has no legal background at all.


Jeremy Wright and new Solicitor-General Robert Buckland have a lot less experience as practising lawyers than their predecessors Dominic Grieve and Oliver Heald, who had been barristers for a combined 73 years, much of it well before they were MPs. Grieve is about 10 years older than Cameron, and was famously not afraid to tell the prime minister when he was about to break the law. Will Jeremy Wright, who is seven years younger than Cameron, have the courage, clout or experience to give the PM unwelcome but wise legal advice?

There is also a growing pool of unhappy men in their 50s on the backbenches. Those who have lost their jobs this week can be added to those who expected jobs before 2010, but have never achieved office. There are also several unhappy big beasts at large, notably Liam Fox and Andrew Mitchell. Cameron’s offer to Fox of a junior job (outside cabinet) at the Foreign Office, was insulting to a man who came a respectable third in the 2005 leadership election. And remember, Fox was a junior minister at the Foreign Office almost 20 years ago.  Having said that, I suspect that had Fox returned to cabinet, it would have ended in tears.

Dashed hopes

Andrew Mitchell, too, hoped he might return to cabinet, or get the job as Britain’s European commissioner. His hopes were dashed by not being able to settle the two libel actions left over from the “plebgate” affair – one by Mitchell against the Sun newspaper, the other by the Downing Street policemen Toby Rowland against Mitchell. Cameron’s next reshuffle may not be till after the 2015 election, and given what’s just happened to others of Mitchell’s generation – Willetts, Green and Grieve – it could be too late by then.

Having said that, David Cameron has been clever in bringing back two men – Nick Gibb and Brooks Newmark – who were sacked before.  Indeed Nick Gibb seems to have his old job back at education. And Mark Harper is also back in government after having to resign as immigration minister a few months ago.  Such moves may give other sacked ministers a glimmer of hope which may deter them from turning into serial rebels, or quitting their seats. Nonetheless I would expect quite a few of the recently departed to announce over the next few months that they are now giving. up as MPs.  Tougher rules on outside interests make a post-ministerial life on the backbenches far less attractive than it once was.

High-profile role

Is it wise for David Cameron to announce that the new Chief Whip Michael Gove will have a high-profile role, in contrast to his predecessors, and do lots of broadcast interviews? Traditionally the chief whip was a mysterious, secretive figure who never spoke in the house or on TV (though the latter rule has slowly been relaxed). It’s inevitable that Gove will open himself up to questions from broadcasters about the behaviour of some of his MPs, and what he’s going to do about them?

Finally, credit to David Cameron in once again avoiding the ludicrous changes in Whitehall architecture to which many previous PMs were always prone. But there are far too many ministers straddling more than one department, which is terribly confusing. And it’s a joke to keep appeasing disappointed would-be cabinet ministers by doling out willy-nilly the right to attend cabinet. 33 people will now sit round the cabinet table, but only 22 of them are actually proper cabinet members.

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