Day of the long knives: why Michael Gove had to go

Cameron gives government a feminine makeover in an effort to win the 2015 general election

Column LAST UPDATED AT 11:33 ON Tue 15 Jul 2014

The demotion of the acerbic Michael Gove to Chief Whip, and his replacement as Education Secretary by Nicky Morgan, is the clearest sign of pre-election panic by David Cameron. The Prime Minister clearly feels he has to change the face of his government to head off defeat at the May 2015 general election.

After the shock resignation of William Hague as Foreign Secretary, and the sacking of a string of Cabinet ministers, it amounts to the biggest reshuffle of Cameron’s term of office.

It also marks one of the most sweeping changes to a government since Harold Macmillan’s 'night of the long knives' when, 52 years ago this week, the then Tory PM sacked seven ministers in a desperate attempt to regain popularity for his party.

Post by post: Who's who in the Cabinet reshuffle

Cameron’s reshuffle is all about promoting bright, personable women in place of "grey" middle-aged men in a bid to persuade the electorate that his government is not dominated by a clique of privileged Old Etonians and Bullingdon Club members who are out of touch with ordinary people.

As well as promoting Nicky Morgan – a protégé of Chancellor George Osborne, one of the few big guns to keep his job – Cameron has invited Liz Truss into the Cabinet, making her Environment Secretary in place of Owen Paterson. Also, Esther McVie, a former TV presenter from Merseyside with a strong Scouse accent, will now attend Cabinet, although she keeps her present job as Employment Minister.

Gove will be the Tories' 'Minister for the Today Programme' - the man the media can go to for a ready comment on the issue of the day - a highly unusual role for the Chief Whip, which is usually a behind-the-scenes job.

Yet despite that important brief, the new role marks a significant downgrading of Gove's position, whatever Downing Street might say: he will not attend Cabinet meetings as a right, and will not be part of the “core team”.

Gove, a former journalist, has made a number of mistakes as Education Secretary. He upset Cameron by engaging in a back-stabbing briefing earlier this summer against Theresa May (with the help of his old Times colleagues) over the failure to curb Islamic extremism in schools.

He is also criticised for failing to convince the public with his drive for reforms in free schools and academies and making bitter enemies of state school teachers as a result.

The Tories do not need to go into a general election with so much animosity coming from the public sector and Nicky Morgan will be under orders to defuse the issue, just as Jeremy Hunt had to do in the wake of Andrew Lansley’s top-down reorganisation of the health service.

The reshuffle also tilts the balance towards the eurosceptics in the Tory party with the resignation of europhile Ken Clarke and the move of Philip Hammond to replace William Hague at the Foreign Office. Hammond, unlike Hague, has said in the past he would be prepared to countenance Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Hague's story is that he's had enough of frontline politics and can't wait to stand down as an MP next May and write another book. However, one can't help wondering how he was going to explain to his do-good friend Angelina Jolie why his government would soon be doing its best to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights and escape the jurisdiction of the deeply unpopular (among Tories) European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Cameron's keenness to replace the current Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, and tell Strasbourg where to go, is understood to be behind the decision to sack Dominic Grieve as Attorney General – yet another casualty of this radical reshuffle. ·