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Cameron flushes Scotland's hopes down the toilet

AND so farewell Michael Gove, who will now go down in history as the minister who got locked in the lavatory.

OK, these things happens to the best of us, though I recall from my Westminster days that the whips used to send minions to inspect the Commons toilets before every tight vote to ensure no members were hiding there. But since Gove was the new chief whip, I suppose he wasn't able to authorise the sweep, being incarcerated in the convenience himself.

Gove's farcical departure was by general agreement the story of the biggest Tory reshuffle since the General Election, though it would have helped if he had not been almost universally described as "the Education Secretary", instead of just the English one. David Cameron's Cabinet reshuffle was covered, on both sides of the Border, as if devolution had never happened. Most of the personnel changes related to ministers with no direct remit in Scotland - health, education, environment.

However, while the musical chairs in the Westminster village may not have had much direct relevance portfolio-wise, the new Tory team can still do a lot of damage in Scotland. Take Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, for example. One of the dullest speakers in British politics - he makes his predecessor William Hague look like Winston Churchill - Hammond's only obvious qualification for the job is that he wants to leave Europe. Fine. But he will take Scotland with him, which isn't.

As this column explained last week, the privatisation of health provision in England, begun by Andrew Lansley and continued by Jeremy Hunt, will have a twofold impact in Scotland. The reduction in the health budget will be reflected disproportionately in the Barnett Formula because health is nearly one-third of all spending in Scotland. And by opening the English system up to private provision, the UK could leave Scotland vulnerable to the legal predations of private health multinationals seeking to use the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) trade liberalisation talks to prise open the NHS to competition.

What else? Well, Iain Duncan Smith has not gone back to his crypt as some expected and remains in charge of the welfare reform agenda, bedroom tax and universal credit. However, in the dust of the reshuffle last week, the unshuffled Coalition Treasury Secretary, Danny Alexander, suddenly discovered that the bedroom tax is a seriously bad idea.

Now, we have all known this for at least the last two years. So why is it only now that Alexander, who was instrumental in imposing this latter-day poll tax, has discovered that it is "unfair" and "not working as we hoped"? Could this epiphany have anything to do with the coming election and anxiety about the security of his Liberal Democrat Inverness seat?

The Liberal Democrats' belated realisation that the bedroom tax is not the best advert for the UK is a good thing, as far as it goes. As is his boss, Nick Clegg, saying he'll outlaw gender discrimination in pay. And that he will fight for Britain to stay in Europe, even though Clegg said - with unusual candour - that in the reshuffle the anti-European "headbangers" had won.

But hold on a minute - can anyone seriously believe a Liberal Democrat election pledge after their promises, written in blood, that they would never reintroduce university tuition fees? As the election approaches I am fully expecting Liberal Democrats - perhaps even Danny Alexander - to admit that the tuition fees issue has been a disaster. And it has.

Nearly half of English university students studying today will spend their working lives burdened with debts that they will never be able to repay. And already there are calls from "elite" universities like Oxbridge to increase tuition fees to their "true market rate" - way above £9000. The new scheme has proved even more costly than the old.

Now, I am not saying that a No vote will lead to the reintroduction of tuition fees in Scotland. However, I predict a lot of complaints, post-referendum, that it is unfair for English students to be discriminated against when they attend university in Scotland. This is a unitary state, we will be told, and it violates their civil rights to have to pay fees when Scottish students do not.

For, if there is anyone who doubts that Scotland will be in a hard place after a No vote, they need only look at the new Cabinet. The Conservatives are more anti-Europe than ever before, more pro-nuclear than ever before, more hostile to immigrants and welfare claimants than ever before. This is the Conservatives remade in the image of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader. The last vestige of one-nation conservatism was removed from the Tory leadership in the departure of Ken Clarke, the only pro-European cabinet minister until last week.

Ken Clarke launched the first wave of health service marketisation in the 1990s and is no soft-hearted liberal. But against the right-shifting background of contemporary Conservatism, he is practically a leftist. The days when the Conservative cabinet was populated by people like Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd and John Biffen are long gone.

And still some people think here that after a No vote, Westminster is going to go to the bother of introducing a federal constitution, give Scotland fiscal autonomy, let a thousand powers bloom. This is hopelessly naïve. These people don't give a fig. The new Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was one of the "Anglo-Scot" Tories who used to turn up at Scottish Question Time in the 1980s to attack "subsidy Scots" and their "begging-bowl" mentality.

The yawning gulf between Scottish and Westminster political culture could not have been clearer last week. Can you imagine any of these people being installed as ministers in Holyrood? It is inconceivable. David Cameron has turned the Conservative Party into an ideological vehicle of the new right. Liz Truss, Matthew Hancock and Priti Patel are arguably to the right of Margaret Thatcher. Treasury minister Patel wants to bring back the death penalty. The new Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, and her junior, Matthew Hancock, want renewable energy subsidies axed.

Yet most of the press coverage, in the Conservative-leaning papers at least, was to the effect that this reshuffle wasn't ideological enough. That courageous Michael Gove who has presided over civil war in English education should have been kept where he was and that a ballsier privatiser than Jeremy Hunt is needed in charge of health. The reshuffle, it is said, was heavily influenced by the polling conducted by the Tory strategist, Lynton Crosby, which showed that Michael Gove was too "toxic" to keep in post pre-election.

But he'll be back. The new Chief Whip is also supposed to be minister for Today - expected to spend his time in TV and radio studios defending the boss who sacked him all the way to the general election. That's as long as he keeps himself out of the loo.

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