Yesterday, David Cameron announced his Cabinet and ministerial appointments for the first Conservative majority government in 18 years. Much has already been made of the composition of this new government and what it means for the country – for example, to provide a sense of continuity and stability with many familiar faces remaining in key offices of state; and a more ‘female friendly’ government, with more women in Cabinet level positions than ever before; and to demonstrate a new form of ‘Blue-collar Conservatism’ with more comprehensive-educated Ministers designed to prove that the Tories are the real party for working people.
One of the most striking points of this new Cabinet, however, is the clear role George Osborne has played in yesterday’s appointments. With so many of ‘his people’ now in important domestic policy positions, it is difficult not to conclude that Osborne is now completely running the show – whether it’s on policy decisions relating to financial services, energy, business regulation, innovation, education, local government and planning. While the previous coalition government was often characterised by inter-departmental tensions and disagreements (and not necessarily between the coalition partners, but sometimes within each party), this new majority government is likely to operate more differently with Osborne firmly in command, working with his many allies around the Cabinet table.
Take Sajid Javid, the new Business Secretary. He previously served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury with Osborne and is widely regarded as one of his protégées; or Amber Rudd, the new Energy and Climate Change Secretary, who previously served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Osborne in the Treasury; or Nicky Morgan as Education Secretary, or Greg Clark as Communities Secretary. Both of them served as Ministers under Osborne in the Treasury. Greg Hands, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury is a long-time ally of the Chancellor. Perhaps the only surprise is that Matt Hancock, Osborne’s former adviser, was not given a more prominent role in Government, but his position as Minister for Efficiency & Civil Service Reform will prove highly important to Osborne in managing the proposed £13 billion ‘savings’ required from government departments to pay down the deficit.
In some ways, this set up is reminiscent of New Labour, when many commented that Gordon Brown was controlling the domestic policy agenda from HM Treasury, while Tony Blair performed the role of international statesman. The difference this time around, is that no such tensions exist between Cameron and Osborne as existed between Blair and Brown – their relationship remains as close as ever. Indeed, Cameron’s first announcement on Friday was to name Osborne as ‘First Secretary of State’ – in other words, the Deputy Prime Minister.
The question now for Osborne is how best to use this power while he has the chance. Cameron and Osborne’s political authority has never been higher after masterminding an election victory that few thought was possible and Osborne has been largely credited with the economic recovery. Many now expect a radical reformist agenda before things become trickier in the latter stages of the Parliament. Key challenges remain – the EU referendum, Scottish devolution, managing backbenchers while having a slim parliamentary majority and dealing with future leadership hopefuls (namely Boris Johnson and Theresa May) – but for now, George Osborne is all powerful in the new Conservative Government.