Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

How Cameron’s moment was hijacked by Johnson

It wasn’t supposed to go quite like this. Less than a week after David Cameron’s reshuffle, which was set to cement his leadership, give the Government a shot in the arm and appease Tory grassroots, the papers are writing about stalking horses and Boris Johnson.

Admittedly, the approach made to Colonel Bob Stewart to challenge the Prime Minister came before the summer recess and was dismissed by the MP as “silly”.

But it has been exposed at completely the wrong time for Mr Cameron, while there’s even talk of Zac Goldsmith offering his Richmond seat to the London Mayor as part of a protest against Heathrow expansion.

Verdicts on the reshuffle have been mixed, with some Tories welcoming the arrival of Right-wingers Chris Grayling to Justice and Owen Paterson, fresh from his duties in Northern Ireland, as Environment Secretary.

But there were plenty of critical voices, with the appointment of Jeremy Hunt — on the verge of being sacked in April — as Health Secretary raising most eyebrows.

Meanwhile, some painful details, which may or may not have been accurate, were leaked.

Thus, the Prime Minister’s spokesman was forced to deny that Mr Cameron booted Caroline Spelman out of the Cabinet because she was too old (an odd excuse, given that she’s younger than Mr Paterson, who replaced her) and sipped wine while giving the bad news to former Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan.

These allegations must have come from somewhere — and the mere fact that they were made suggests there are some seriously unhappy ex-ministers around.

Another is former Transport Secretary Justine Greening, who was shunted to International Development as part of a departmental clear-out that saw Theresa Villiers and Mike Penning arrive in the Northern Ireland Office.

It was a unique atmosphere at Westminster, like football transfer deadline day for political nerds.

Does any of this matter? The personalities might have a profound, long-term impact.

If the Government is, indeed, paving the way for an eventual third runway at Heathrow, there will be a knock-on effect on Belfast’s links to the London hub, as the Commons’ Northern Ireland affairs committee has noted.

Owen Paterson’s ideas — less green than his predecessor, we’re told — will still be felt in Northern Ireland, with elements of fisheries and agriculture not fully devolved.

Then there’s corporation tax, a massive early test for Ms Villiers.

It’s these things — not grumbling ex-ministers or the Prime Minister sipping wine — which will define the Government for years to come.

Tom Moseley is the Belfast Telegraph’s parliamentary correspondent

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