Cameron's reshuffle is even more hazardous than before

The PM has accidentally stoked vast expectations.

Shortly before everyone in Westminster started talking obsessively about House of Lords reform, they talked obsessively about the likely outcome of David Cameron’s first big cabinet reshuffle. (Sometimes the obsessive talk in Westminster is about things that have a direct impact on people’s lives – the things voters care about. But not as often as they ought.)

Happily for the obsessives, the themes of Lords reform and reshuffle have now effectively merged. There was always speculation that Cameron was delaying making any new government appointments until after the Lords vote, so as to dangle the prospect of promotion and the threat of blackballing in front of potential rebels. If so, it didn’t work out too well as an incentive scheme.

Jesse Norman, the rebel chief, has often been tipped for a ministerial gig of some kind. He has been close to the Cameroons. He quite literally wrote the book on the "big society". He’s clever, politically astute and very ambitious. It should be of some concern to No.10 that he chose to deploy his talents in the service of rebellion rather that government. (The PM is reported to have expressed what might euphemistically be called his disappointment in a moment of finger-jabbing exasperation after Tuesday night’s vote.) Norman, it must be said, is a sincere and erudite enthusiast for all matters Conservative and constitutional. His action against what he saw as an attempt to bodge the upper chamber of parliament was driven by a particular passion, not some cynical discovery of coalition-baiting as sport.

Still, it would be impossible for Cameron to promote him; likewise Nadim Zarhawi, a formerly ultra-loyal MP from the 2010 intake, thought to be a eligible for a first rung on the government ladder, who also rebelled on Tuesday night.

Cameron’s authority in the party is too low for him to be seen to be rewarding flagrant insubordination. Two junior ministerial aides – Conor Burns and Angie Bray – have already lost their jobs over the rebellion; the former jumping the latter pushed. And while officially the Lib Dems have no say in who the PM appoints on his side of the coalition, dispensing favours to the Lords saboteurs would be an extraordinary affront.

It now seems certain – as indeed it has for a while – that the reshuffle will come in autumn. Cameron will want the summer to get some perspective on the turbulent politics of the first half of the year and to think about his strategy for what will, whether he likes it or not, be judged as a re-launch. Chiefly he has to decide whether the emphasis will be on “Modernisation 2.0” – a renewal in some form of plan to change people’s perceptions of what the party stands for and whom it represents or on a more “Authentic Conservative” platform – stressing traditional themes to fire up the base.

Of course, Downing Street aides insist you can do both and that the choice is a false one, but certain signals will inevitably be sent by the decisions about who is appointed to what jobs. Putting Chris Grayling in charge of, say, the Home Office - a job he once shadowed and for which he unsubtly auditions whenever he appears in public - would tilt conspicuously to the right. Finding some modest ministerial niche for Nick Boles – a liberal Cameroon ultra and old friend of the PM – would be a nod to the old modernisation agenda. And then, of course, there are the dilemmas that have lingered around for so long they feel almost stale, but remain problematic: what to do with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and party chair Sayeeda Warsi – two cabinet members who have been the target of ferocious campaigns, one from the opposition, the other from inside the Tory ranks.

The list could go on. Everyone has their pet theory and gossip of dubious origin about the scale, timing and likely content of the reshuffle. A problem for Cameron is that, having left it so long before re-jigging his team, he has accidentally stoked vast expectations. There are too many factions and individuals to be satisfied and the strategic political challenge is too big to be met by a round of musical chairs. The PM finds himself in political air traffic control, with some many ambitious figures - jumbo-sized egos - circling overhead and only a little bit of runway space on which to bring them safely in to land. Far from re-launching the whole project, he will be lucky to pull it off without accident.

David Cameron is set to carry out his first cabinet reshuffle this autumn. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.