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Our political editor Paul Francis gives his analysis on this week's Cabinet reshuffle

After the snakes and ladders of the reshuffle, the Conservatives have got rather excitable about the possibility of a general election.

The speculation began when the new party chairman Oliver Dowden told staff at the Conservatives’ campaign headquarters: “You can’t fatten a pig on market day. It’s time to go to our offices and prepare for an election.”

New party chairman Oliver Dowden. Stock picture
New party chairman Oliver Dowden. Stock picture

All reshuffles are, of course, geared towards enhancing a party’s prospects of either retaining power or gaining it at the expense of those who have it.

But is there really any public appetite for an early poll?

The general mood of the country is probably not over-enamoured by the prospect, with Covid-19 continuing to cast a shadow along with a fragile economy.

In the case of the former, the government has sent a strong signal that we should be prepared for continuing outbreaks of the virus and that it has reserved the right to impose restrictions should that happen.

As to the economy, the Chancellor’s Autumn statement is unlikely to bring a bountiful supply of goodies to voters as the government will have to find ways of balancing the books after the huge sums spent propping up the country during the pandemic.

Michael Gove. (Aaron Chown/PA)
Michael Gove. (Aaron Chown/PA)

Add in the on-going challenge of dealing with the number of asylum seeker continuing to arrive on Kent’s shores and it is not exactly a propitious backdrop for a poll.

The appointment of Michael Gove as housing minister to replace the unpopular Robert Jenrick is an indication that the government has yet to develop - excuse the pun - a package of reforms that voters will accept if not embrace with full-bloodied enthusiasm.

Gove’s conundrum is the same faced by his predecessor: how to increase affordable house-building and in Kent’s case avoid concreting over the Garden of England.

Jenrick left Gove with the unloved plan to accelerate house-building by having zones in which developers could build without the pesky need to get planning permission.

A White Paper on the plan claimed pre-classifying development plans into growth areas, renewal areas and protected areas "could halve the time it takes to secure planning.”

Jenrick left Gove with the unloved plan to accelerate house-building. Stock picture
Jenrick left Gove with the unloved plan to accelerate house-building. Stock picture

This notion horrifies many Kent Conservative MPs who understandably see the reforms as a vote loser and have conveyed that in unambiguous terms to national party chiefs.

That message was underlined when the Lib Dems pulled off a surprise by-election victory in Chesham and Amersham.

Housing development featured heavily in the campaign with large numbers of Conservative supporters registering a protest vote.

It already seems Gove has grasped the depth of feeling as there are already reports that he wants to “take stock” of the reforms.

In other words, he is looking to jettison the zones concept but needs a bit of space to come up with an alternative that won’t upset the party rank and file members as well as MPs.

Ashford International station. Credit: Google Maps
Ashford International station. Credit: Google Maps

It is three years since the then transport secretary of state Chris Grayling came to Ashford for the official launch of a major signalling project that would enable more trains to stop at the International Station.

He described the project as one which would “offer a massive boost to the local economy” and “make international travel between here and the continent quicker and more convenient for travellers.”

This optimistic tone was echoed by Mike Cooper, chief Executive, eurostar: "The modernisation of Ashford International will allow even more of our passengers to benefit from our state-of-the-art new fleet.”

Sadly, it seems the future proofing of both Ashford International station and Ebbsfleet has hit the buffers and those benefiting are passengers travelling from St Pancras International.

There seems to be a growing pessimism about the prospects for both stations in Kent as Eurostar now says it will be at least until 2023 before it considers whether it can resume services.

A Eurostar train. Picture: Nathan Gallagher
A Eurostar train. Picture: Nathan Gallagher

The coronavirus pandemic is to blame, as it is for a lot of things. Perhaps now is the time for the government to step in.

If the the French government is prepared to provide Eurostar with a rescue package totalling £250m, why is the government resistant to some kind of bail out that would prevent services being sidelined completely?

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