In 1988 Margaret Thatcher attended the Scottish Cup Final between Celtic and Dundee United. Hampden Park was full to the rafters with highly disgruntled Glaswegians and Dundonians who were not shy in letting her know what they thought of her. “Not best keen” might be one way of putting it. Last night at the Paralympics, George Osborne appeared before a sporting crowd we might typically expect to be rather more polite. Their reaction? Not best keen.
You didn’t have to be at the Paralympics though to know that Osborne’s popularity, such as it ever was, has taken a severe nosedive. One recent poll had just 16% of people saying he is an “asset” to the Government as opposed to 58% saying deeming him a “liability”.
And for David Cameron, therein lies the problem. However hard he may try to make this reshuffle matter, the fact is that George Osborne is the most unpopular member of his government – yet he is immovable.
He remains Cameron’s closest political ally. To move him away from the Treasury would be the ultimate admission of defeat on the central mission the PM and Chancellor have set themselves – to restore the British economy to health. While growth remains a figment of their imaginations, the impact of the reshuffle on the wider public consciousness will be limited.
There are some interesting moves elsewhere, albeit with a distinct whiff of rearranging deckchairs.
Justine Greening away from Transport after just ten months is a clear sign that Heathrow is being rethought. What amounts to a vote of no-confidence in Andrew Lansley when other reforming Ministers (Gove and IDS) were left in place. The ‘greenest Government ever’ appointing an Environment Secretary in no way noted for his green credentials. A new Justice Secretary with none of Ken Clarke’s liberal instincts.
And yet with The Great Offices of State, the ‘Quad’ and other well-known faces like Cable and Duncan Smith untouched, to the public at large the Government will have a distinctly familiar look.
The real upheaval is in the middle and lower ranks of the Ministerial ladder. Sweeping changes in the junior teams at Health, Transport, Treasury, Education and BIS suggest Cameron is looking to inject fresh thinking into the government machine. Some of the young MPs regarded as rising stars, such as Elizabeth Truss and Matt Hancock, have been enlisted and will no doubt take on an enhanced media role. Their challenge lies in trying to bring something more than mere fresh faces.
So how should Ed Miliband respond? With a reshuffle of his own? My feeling is no. The Shadow Cabinet reshuffle last year saw Labour bring in many of their own bright young things. They are already one year advanced in their task of pricking the public consciousness and showing that a Labour government in 2015 could look very distinct to that which left office in May 2010. Better to give them more time to master their briefs and hone their performances on camera and at the despatch box. Many will even now have the advantage of being better versed in the details of their portfolios than the new Ministers they are shadowing.
Labour returns from recess with a ten point opinion poll lead which has remained strong throughout the summer. Any post-reshuffle bounce which does emerge for the Tories is unlikely to last beyond Conference. For Ed Miliband, his focus in the next few weeks must be on honing what will surely be the most important speech of his leadership to date. Last year’s speech with its theme of building a better capitalism, though derided in some quarters, has improved with age. Building on that foundation with more policy detail and a more confident delivery is vital.
We are at halfway-point in this Parliament, and for the first time even many of his detractors now acknowledge that Number 10 could be Ed’s future home.
This reshuffle of the middle ranks must not deter him from that mission.
Simon Fitzpatrick works on financial policy at Cicero Consulting.