No, Mr. Cameron. It’s A Demotion All Right.
July 15, 2014
by Martin Odoni
It’s an old exasperated joke every generation tells a hundred times about politics, I know, but it is genuinely scary how little the current British Government appears to know. This is especially true of its Ministers in their departmental fields e.g. George Osborne knowing almost nothing about economics, and apparently being unable to perform basic multiplication. But it gets even scarier when you recognise that David Cameron is what these days passes for a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister, after all, is the man or woman who appoints the Ministers who will serve in the Cabinet. You would therefore hope, at the very least, that whoever is the incumbent at 10 Downing Street would have some grasp of what are Ministries and Departments, and what are not. (NB: There are all-too-many other reasons to be scared by the idea of Cameron being Prime Minister of course, but we’ll let that slide for now.)
This week, Cameron has supposedly shown himself to be a Prime Minister of action by instigating a ‘major’ – according to the BBC at least – reshuffle of the Cabinet. And in attempting to defend one of the changes he has made, he has firmly demonstrated that, no, he does not know what are the Ministries and the Departments and what are not. I’m serious. He doesn’t.
The ex-Minister we must focus on here is Michael Gove. I do not wish to dwell too long on his truly shambolic tour-of-duty as Secretary Of State For Education – I suspect my use of the word ‘shambolic’ will be sufficient to let readers know my opinions on that subject. But in the reshuffle, Gove was, thankfully, removed at last from the Department for Education, and appointed the Chief Whip, taking over at 9 Downing Street from the sacked Sir George Young. When hearing murmurs in the media that this constituted a demotion for Gove, David Cameron publicly retorted that it was no such thing, and that Gove had a major role in the months leading up to the next General Election promoting the Conservative Party in the media.
This putative major role may or may not prove to be genuine – although media promotions are somewhat unusual work for a Whip, whose usual role is to lurk in the background and, if anything, try to bury any scandals that might reach the press, rather than putting on a show for them. But either way, it seems bizarre that Cameron would argue that it is not a demotion, for one simple reason: The Chief Whip is not actually a member of the Cabinet.
It’s true. The Chief Whip cannot be a member of the Cabinet, because the Whips’ Office is not a Government Department. And nor should it be for it has no role in governing the country itself, and therefore no administrative or policy function. It is in fact purely a Parliamentary resource lent to whoever the governing Party is, and therefore is an ‘on-loan’ part of the Party machine. The function of the Whips is strictly political, not Governmental, and they principally act as the Cabinet’s ‘heavies’ – this is to say, they make sure that the Party’s backbenchers in Parliament vote in support of Cabinet legislation – usually done by means of threatening to withdraw the backbencher’s Party funding, or even, if such material is available, blackmailing them with embarrassing details about the backbencher’s private life or business dealings that could be leaked to the media.
Bullying the backbenchers is the height of the Chief Whip’s authority; it does not extend to giving instruction to Cabinet Ministers, over whom the Chief Whip has no command at all.
It is only because, by convention, the Chief Whip is also often given the sinecure of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury – a meaningless and duty-less title that has no formal link to the Treasury itself (the key word is ‘Parliamentary’ instead) – that he or she is allowed to attend Cabinet meetings at all. Therefore, for any Minister in a reshuffle to find himself or herself transferred to the role of Chief Whip, they have been demoted, beyond doubt. Even getting transferred to the role of a Sports Minister would be less of a humiliation. (The Chief Whip even gets paid about 35% less.)
Now let us be clear, Gove deserves no better. As has been noted here and elsewhere many times before, he is a foolish, blinkered ideologue, and his frequent petulance and impatience betray how laughably feeble his diplomatic skills are. Indeed, and in fairness to Cameron, that is one of the reasons why the demotion has happened – because of Gove’s silly public arguments with fellow Ministers, his inability to form productive relations with the Education sector, and his almost disturbing temperamental outbursts in debates with other MPs and the media.
I agree with Cameron’s decision therefore, and his reasons for making it. But that appears to be a matter of pure chance. Cameron is not aware of what he is appointing someone to before making the appointment, even though it is a part of his Government. That is more than a little disturbing, as it suggests that after four years in office, he still has a very sketchy understanding of the machinery he is trying to operate. Seeing how hell-bent his Government seems to be on knowing everything about everyone else’s lives, this lack of awareness of itself is bewildering.
I suppose it’s a harmless enough mistake on this occasion, but even so, you do have to ask, if he hasn’t learned what’s what after all this time, when will he? And can we be sure that all such ignorant mistakes he makes in the future will be so harmless?