If last week’s election results were a victory for small ‘c’ conservatism, so too was David Cameron’s first reshuffle of the new parliament. The immediate message was one of stability and continuity as the Prime Minister quickly reinstated key figures to the posts they held before the election.
This belief in continuity is one of David Cameron’s strengths as a Prime Minister. For someone frequently derided as a ‘PR man’, he rarely succumbs to replacing ministers for the sake of a couple of days’ headlines. As a consequence, ministers have had a chance to see through substantial reform agendas under his premiership.
Of those who remain in post, Jeremy Hunt and Iain Duncan Smith have the most daunting tasks. Contrary to Labour’s election rhetoric, the biggest threat to the NHS is not ‘privatisation’ but demographics. Britain has an ageing population and the NHS does not have infinite resources.
This demands a shift in the way the NHS itself works – equipping people to manage long-term conditions and moving towards more care in the community. But ultimately it also requires a social care system on a sustainable financial footing. The Dilnot reforms, introduced in the last parliament, were designed to protect individuals from catastrophic costs and encourage people to insure against the costs of long term care. They contained the seeds of an answer but we’re not there yet.
IDS has equally big items on his to-do list. The implementation of Universal Credit looms large, while finding £12 billion of cuts to the welfare budget will be politically treacherous (perhaps so treacherous that it will not happen). But new thinking is also needed in other areas: the work programme needs reform and new thinking about what modern version of the Job Centre should look like..
Meanwhile, the pension reforms introduced at the end of the last parliament have raised as many questions as they have answered. The public has welcomed greater freedom and choice – the question now is whether this will be complemented by ‘nudges’ and consumer protections that recognise how high-stakes these choices are. Steve Webb was given a relatively free reign as the last pensions’ minister – Ros Altman is likely to be given the same.
Others minsters will have the chance to flesh out agendas that they started in the last parliament. Alongside delivering more free-schools, for example, Nicky Morgan will have a chance to develop the government’s story on ‘character’ in education. How much should be down to schools? What does this mean for education policy?
Some other appointments catch the eye. Greg Clark worked closely with the Chancellor in the last parliament to deliver city deals and represents a smart choice as Secretary of State at CLG. The government will be keen to develop a strong story beyond deficit reduction and devolution to cities will be a central part of that.
Robert Halfon’s elevation to Deputy Chairman of the Conservative is another part of that story. His appointment was being briefed yesterday as evidence of the intention to govern in the interests of working people. One of his big themes is apprenticeships – the Conservative Manifesto promised 3 million new apprenticeships over the course of the parliament.
Finally, Sajid Javid’s rapid rise continues with his promotion to Business Secretary. Labour will make a renewed pitch for small business in this parliament but this is a brief he will feel very at home in. Javid will, no doubt, strike a positive tone about the recent rise in self-employment and seek ways of increasing competition in markets to stave off what Jesse Norman and others have called ‘crony capitalism’.
Because of the continuity in the reshuffle it is hard to pick out a single, unifying ‘theme’ to it. But I suspect that David Cameron and George Osborne will want the modernising message to grow louder, not quieter, having finally won the majority they were aiming for.