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Cameron's gender shuffle is nothing but a gimmick

The modern Conservative Party is a strange confection.

For one thing, it is not particularly conservative. Since Margaret Thatcher, if not before, it has never tired of modernising this, reforming that, and embracing any wheeze it takes to be radical.

The ends served don't alter much - the euphemism "wealth creation" will do - but novel means come thick and fast. Is there a conservative, preservationist attitude towards the venerated NHS? Hardly. Will Tories leave England's education system alone, at least for a couple of years? Not a chance. How about the benefits system and the vestiges of a social contract? Bring on the wrecking ball.

You can laud or despise this as you please. What you cannot do is call it conservative in the proper meaning of the word. For 40 years at least the Book of Tory has consisted of chapter after chapter of rough drafts, each entitled Fresh Start. David Cameron's faction, Thatcher's children and grandchildren, are wedded to cultural revolution. History is liable to detect an irony.

The Prime Minister himself got where he is today by exploiting his party's taste for upheavals. Remember how he won the leadership on a promise to "detoxify the brand"? How we were supposed to go green by voting blue? Or how, for this remains pertinent, the Tory Party that took Britain into the European Community became increasingly, doggedly, the party of estrangement and scepticism?

You don't have to believe that Mr Cameron means every word he says to understand the instincts at work. Turmoil, the more dramatic and "radical" the better, is always good. One symbolic photograph emerges of an unremittingly male Cabinet and an entire government is turned upside down. Belatedly, the Prime Minister makes an effort to redeem a few vague aspirations towards gender balance and a politics that reflects wider society. In the process, he contrives to sow confusion.

The need for more women in the Cabinet was hardly worth the argument. That snap of parliamentary men in suits was damning. But by introducing Nicky Morgan (at education) and Liz Truss (environment), the Prime Minister invites a question: why did it take him so long to notice that jobs were only for the boys? Come to that, if this is an effort to make the Cabinet more representative, where are we on the Oxbridge-public school count?

Where women are concerned, Mr Cameron has managed to do the right thing, finally, and still managed to make it feel like a gimmick. That tends to be the nature of Tory radicalism. If he also means us to believe that this reshuffle has produced his next-term Cabinet in waiting, the effect is not plausible. That has nothing to do, ironically, with Ms Morgan or Mr Truss. It has everything to do with Michael Gove and Philip Hammond.

On the face of it, Mr Gove has been demoted. He might not have been "sacked", as Reuters claimed yesterday, but the job of Chief Whip in a government with a threadbare legislative programme does not count as a leap up the greasy pole for the Maoist of English schools reform. It should seem odd, too, that a very close supporter of George Osborne, the Chancellor, has been deprived of formal Cabinet membership.

But remember the small print. Mr Gove is to have "an enhanced role in campaigning and doing broadcast media interviews". You could have done with it and call him Minister for Propaganda. You could then take a bet and say he has been promised something more glamorous and substantial should the Tories prevail at the next UK general election.

For now, his talent for alienating teachers in England and Wales has been neutralised. Since the Prime Minister is said to have been wholly supportive of the efforts made by his erstwhile minister in dismantling English education, however, that's a minor detail. The issue, typically, is one of presentation, not of policy. Mr Gove will be back if the election goes well. The belief that he has paid the price for squabbling with Theresa May, the Home Secretary, feels wide of the mark.

This a pre-election Cabinet, a short-term affair. William Hague decides life is too brief to waste at the Foreign Office. He does not retire gracefully to the back benches for the final few months of the Coalition. Instead, he too is delegated to serve the forthcoming - or already launched - re-election campaign. As Leader of the Commons, Mr Hague will become what the Prime Minister calls "my de facto political deputy". Forming the next government now counts for more than any newly "refreshed" Cabinet.

It feels like a temporary, expedient creation. Whatever Mr Hammond's credentials as a eurosceptic - and Mr Hague once won the party leadership with that caper - the new Foreign Secretary has not said a memorable or imaginative thing in his life. Irrespective of Michael Fallon's reputation as a safe pair of hands, the new Defence Secretary still looks like an over-promoted junior minister. But then, Mr Cameron could hardly have handed the defence brief to a woman, could he?

It is hard to believe that Mr Hammond is intended to occupy the Foreign Office for many years. He represents the Prime Minister's real problem: creating a fuss over a reshuffle is easy; finding the talent to suit the jobs available is remarkably difficult for the Tories, even when Cabinet posts are shared with the Liberal Democrats. That Mr Hammond can make eurosceptic noises is neither here nor there.

Conservatives addicted to upheaval will tell themselves otherwise, of course. They will see the defenestration of Dominic Grieve from the office of Attorney General as a sign that the European Convention on Human Rights can now be attacked at will. They will miss the larger point: all of their allegedly radical posturing over Europe is liable to have unintended consequences. One will be deepening anger among their business backers as a UK withdrawal from the EU looms.

Whether Mr Cameron's little melodrama will have any effect on the electorate remains to be seen. What is clear is that his reshuffle will have no effect on a fundamental problem for his party and for Britain. The place Tories call "the north" isn't buying what they're selling. One poll this week showed, for example, that while the Conservative Party has the support of 42% in the Midlands, it manages only half that figure in the north of England and in Scotland.

Mr Cameron has not addressed that issue, far less begun to resolve it. With Mr Hague departing, he has few enough MPs who can claim any sort of connection with the political badlands. Yet again, Britain is divided utterly, its underlying attitudes and loyalties exposed. A long overdue interest in gender as it affects the Cabinet has no bearing. Ms Morgan represents Loughborough; Ms Truss the constituency of South West Norfolk.

Those polls say, nevertheless, that Mr Cameron still has every reason to believe he can win in 2015, thanks chiefly, overwhelmingly, to voters in the English south. Despite everything, the contest with Labour is close. And in these parts only a referendum can reshuffle the facts of British political life.

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