Though it is receiving regrettably little attention in the United States, our most important ally has just undergone a significant cabinet upheaval. Ten months before the next election, British Prime Minister David Cameron engineered a major reshuffling of about one-third of his ministers starting on Monday. I have just finished a visit of several days to the United Kingdom (where I previously lived for two years while running a foreign-policy think tank), and my trip happened to coincide with what has been described as the most substantial shake-up by a Conservative prime minister since Harold MacMillan sacked a third of his cabinet in the "Night of the Long Knives" back in 1962.
The most notable moves are the replacement of longtime Foreign Minister William Hague with erstwhile Defense Minister Philip Hammond, the appointment of Michael Fallon as the new Defense Minister, and the removal of Education Secretary Michael Gove in favor of Nicola Morgan.
One well-placed Tory told me that Cameron’s cabinet shake-up should be seen as a sign of political weakness and worry rather than confidence. Even though the British economy has rebounded and is growing at a brisk clip, and the Conservatives have largely avoided major scandals, Cameron’s party still lags behind the Labour Party in the polls. Labour’s relative popularity is all the more surprising given that it is led by the inept Ed Miliband, an unreconstructed leftist with little support even in his own party. Yet between Labour’s resilience and the recent surge of support among disaffected Tory voters for the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron found his party in an electoral pinch and seems to believe he had no choice but to make some audacious moves.
In terms of foreign and defense policy, virtually all of the British commentary has focused on the ascendance of Euroskeptics, since Hammond and Fallon have both been longtime critics of the EU, as is Cameron’s new nominee for the European Commission, Lord Jonathan Hill. While this is politically understandable given Cameron’s concern about winning back UKIP voters, as a matter of geopolitics it is a small but revealing indication of Britain’s continued decline as a global power. Nowhere have I seen any commentary wondering what the Hammond and Fallon appointments will mean for big issues like Britain’s relationship with the United States, or U.K. policy towards Russia or the Middle East, or the dwindling U.K. defense budget, or any other issue or region besides the fraught U.K.-EU relationship.
Of course Fleet Street has had a field day with the new appointments in this news-mad nation. American politicians who feel frustrated by the U.S. media should be thankful they aren’t subject to the poison pens of British journalists. One Daily Mail columnist wrote that Hammond "has a mournful visage, cadaverous limbs, the shoulders of a hungry heron, and the resilience … of a mollusk on a storm-tossed rock." A Times commentator described the new Foreign Secretary as "such a cold fish that you could serve him with salad to your aunt." While such sentiments may not amount to much of a warm welcome for Hammond to his new position, on the bright side such low expectations may give him an opportunity to pose some pleasant surprises on the foreign-policy front.
Cameron himself in many ways has been a cautious and uninspired prime minister, more like John Major than Margaret Thatcher. Yet he and his government have presided over some substantial domestic and economic reforms, especially fiscal austerity to rein in the severe budget deficit and strengthen the pound, higher standards and more accountability in education, and tightened standards and transparency for the sclerotic welfare state. The demotion of Gove is particularly regrettable in this respect, and seems to be a crass political move resulting from Gove’s unpopularity with the teachers’ unions opposed to his ambitious education reforms. Gove’s dismissal has captured the most headlines in the U.K., on account of Gove’s long and loyal friendship with Cameron and well-deserved reputation as one of the most brilliant Tory thinkers. He will remain in the government as chief whip and parliamentary secretary. Given Gove’s manifest abilities, perseverance, close relationship with Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (Cameron’s most likely successor as Tory leader), and popularity with both the Conservative base and the editorial pages, I think and hope he still has a bright future in British politics.
The economic and domestic reforms that the Cameron government has successfully implemented are all the more remarkable considering the added challenges he has faced as the head of an awkward coalition with the hapless Liberal Democrats, themselves now verging on political extinction. Cameron’s fervent hope at this point is not only to win his own re-election as prime minister next May, but to secure an outright majority for his Conservative Party and thus liberate themselves from the albatross of coalition government. One hopes that after next May’s elections, whatever the results may be, the U.K.’s political leadership will engage in a serious reckoning about how to preserve, and perhaps even strengthen, their nation’s status as a global power.