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Say hello to the Lilac Tories

July 19th, 2014

New cabinet (1)

David Herdson on Cameron’s line-up for GE2015

Squaring circles is part of the business of politics.  One such conundrum David Cameron has to face is how to simultaneously make the party he leads more appealing to centrist floating voters while also attracting back those who’ve defected to UKIP.  On the face of it, those are two incompatible objectives: how can a party move both left and right at the same time?  The simple answer is it can’t; the more complex one is that it doesn’t have to.

There’s been some criticism that Cameron’s reshuffle is mere window dressing.  That if he was serious about the changes then he’d have made them before now, when the government still had serious parliamentary business to get through before the election.  That misses the point.  Cameron is not looking at this parliament; in making the changes now, he has put together his team for the next one.  (In any case, keeping ministers in place while they’re in the middle of something is actually a good thing).

What he’s also done is put together his team for the general election campaign and that’s where the circle-squaring comes in.  Replacing Michael Gove with a woman in her early forties is the most dramatic element of the image management surgery which has left the Tory front bench visibly younger and less male-dominated.

Of course, that image management only works if those coming in are up to the job themselves, which is something that remains to be seen.  Still, with education and immigration two of the electoral battlegrounds, we can expect to hear more Conservative women’s voices on the TV and radio in the months to come.  Few people will change their vote simply because the minister for whatever is a woman rather than a man (or indeed, any one politician rather than another).  However, the overall public impression of the party is very much affected by those making the case for it and to that extent, it will make a difference.

It should be noted that simply putting a woman in a job, even if she’s competent, won’t necessarily help in attracting women’s votes.  Women voters, as with any group or set of individuals, will still need to identify with the party in question, both in terms of empathy and policy – does the party understand them and the issues they face, and does it have the solutions to those problems?  A woman robo-politician will do no better than a male robo-politician; both appear equally out of touch.

Then there’s the other side of the equation: winning back the UKIP defectors.  The cabinet changes marked a definite Eurosceptic shift; one which should become more apparent once the election approaches and ministers can advocate party policy more and government coalition policy less.  Certainly, Europe is only one reason for the Con to UKIP switchers (if an important one), but again, just as the original defections were rarely prompted by a single policy in isolation but by a cumulative effect over years, so switchback, if it happens, is likely to occur due to the effects at the margin of many events.

It would be wrong to claim that Cameron’s cabinet changes were entirely a marketing exercise.  Some of the old guard left of their own accord and Cameron would not have chosen the team he’ll now have to take into the second term he aspires to if he thought they would then let him down.  Even so, there’s no doubt it’s also been put in place to chase the Lilac Tories; both those of a Blue-Purple persuasion and those who prefer a softer shade to their politicians.

David Herdson