So the cabinet shuffle has been performed, and Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development has moved on to wield the cane as Chief Whip, replaced by former Transport Secretary Justine Greening, moved it appears for being too committed to the still official Tory line of rejecting a third runway at Heathrow.
At this early stage, are there any clues as to the future direction of the coalition government’s international development policy? One signal that has been given is surely the relative unimportance of the position of International Development minister. Moving a minister to allow a rethink on a major transport policy hardly sends the message that the appointment is a positive one.
Whatever criticisms there may have been over Mitchell’s tenure (and actually it has been seen by many as a relatively successful one), he did at least come to the position prepared. Shadow minister since 2005, he had a reputation for seeking to learn, and being well read, in his brief. His special advisers had experience and knowledge in this area. Indeed one undertook a postgraduate degree in international development to help in the role (how many spads possess a degree in the subject they are in theory advising on?). Nor could it be said that there was a lack of awareness about what a Tory-led government might prioritise once in office. The focus on private sector solutions and on effectiveness in aid, to name but two (important) areas were certainly not hidden. Mitchell was also one of those pushing for the pre-election commitment to increasing UK foreign aid to the 0.7% target.
But Justine Greening’s appointment has the smack of a punishment about it. Having proven herself to be too inflexible to perform the coalition government’s speciality move (the high speed U-turn), she has been shunted off to DFID where, I think we can assume, it is felt she can do little harm.
Little is known about her own hinterland in international development. Perhaps a stint as shadow minister for communities and local government may prove of use? And Greening cites the ‘environment’ as a political interest (although, sadly, development does not appear – wonder how long that will remain missing from her official bio). Is this a brief she can walk into prepared with at least a modicum of background knowledge, or is it fast learning on the job? The latter is not necessarily a problem – there are advisers to advise, and a current policy the line of which can be maintained. But it does suggest there is to be no fresh thinking, at least not in the short term.
But these are not easy times for DFID. With the steady drumbeat of depressing economic news come ever shriller voices from within the Conservative party, and elements of the print media, for cuts to be made to the international development budget. Mitchell was admirably capable of holding the line and maintaining sufficient pressure to ensure no compromise on this point. Will Greening have the same influence within the cabinet and the wider party? Her removal from Transport has certainly not been presented as a promotion. Will this undermine her own ability to shape policy? Cameron does seem to be standing firm behind the 0.7% commitment – but then he was equally committed to the sale of the forests, the NHS reform process, Lords reform, etc, before the smoke could be seen streaming from his feet after a series of spectacular reverse ferrets.
There is a growing list of issues jostling for top space in Greening’s new red box, and a plethora of advice on what should be added to that list in the comment-o-sphere. Of course there are areas that critics of the current government’s policy would like to see reversed or modified: concerns over the particular role given to the private sector, especially in service delivery; the failure to link policy up with efforts to limit off-shore tax havens and other forms of siphoning-off money; giving a more central place to climate change. (All wishful thinking, of course: expect no major change in policy here).
But what hopefully what critics and supporters of current policies can agree on is the need for a strong minister, capable of continuing to make the case for 0.7% and protecting that commitment against the instincts of a large part of the parliamentary party (and public opinion). Moreover, with the discussions on what will replace the MDGs post-2015 hotting-up, a strong, coherent and informed UK presence is required.
Mitchell was a relatively well-known quantity when he arrived at his desk in May 2010. Greening is certainly not that. She has the chance to impose her own character upon this job, but only if she sees it as important, not as a naughty-step to be escaped from as soon as possible. Whilst major policy shifts this side of an election are unlikely, her main challenge will be to defend the progress made in securing UK aid, and in keeping the profile of DFID high on the international stage. Good luck.