Cameron reaches for Ctrl-Alt-Del

Local elections followed by the Queen's speech offer a handy pause in which Cameron might want to tr

The handy thing about reshuffle rumours is that if you miss one, another one will be along soon enough. The Mail today reports brewing speculation that David Cameron will rearrange his ministerial team soon in an attempt to retake the political initiative. This time it does seem quite plausible. The Prime Minister has to do something to regain the political initiative and the local elections followed by next week's Queen's speech offer a good Ctrl-Alt-Del moment.

As gambit’s go, a reshuffle isn’t terribly imaginative but it is a reliable way to dominate headlines for a day or two and remind everyone who is in charge. Besides, this reshuffle is well overdue. When Cameron became PM he made it a point of principle not to keep moving ministers around between departments (or to reorganise the names and competences of departments themselves). He saw the hyperactive reshuffling that went on under Tony Blair as one of the reasons the New Labour government ended up confusing dynamic headlines and eye-catching initiatives for action and substantial reform.

He was right. If a minister knows he only has a year in his office, he’s more likely to use it as a platform to score some cheap hits, make some noise and angle for promotion. Plus, moving people around all the time empowers civil servants. With their longer institutional memory and intimate knowledge of where past policy bodies are buried, the mandarins can more easily steer disoriented politician new kids who might know precious little about their portfolios.

But there are problems with not re-shuffling too. First, it keeps rubbish ministers in place. Second, it creates no vacancies to reward ambitious juniors. And in politics, thwarted ambition quickly turns to mischief. Frustration is especially high in the Tory party because Lib Dems took a share of government jobs after the election. There is also a peculiar level of rage at the fact that, when vacancies have opened up in the past, Cameron has promoted young women. This is seen by many back benchers as crude image management and positive discrimination – an affront to the oppressed mass of forty-something males, the swollen NCO ranks of the Tory party. It is hard to overstate, for example, how livid some Conservative MPs were over the appointment of Chloe Smith to the Treasury team in the mini-reshuffle after Liam Fox’s resignation last year. It was seen as an act of arrogant provocation by the Cameroons.

This time around, the PM will recognise some of those people who have moaned in the past that they are – to use the horrific phrase of choice – “too pale and too male” to get ahead in Cameron’s party. That means, for example, likely promotions for Chris Grayling and Grant Shapps, currently employment and housing ministers respectively. Both are second tier ministers who have taken charge of their jobs without (yet) causing any grief to Number 10 and who, crucially, can handle themselves well in front of a TV or radio microphone. Downing Street has been frustrated by the lack of reliable cabinet ministers to put up for the Today programme and Question Time.

(Grayling, in particular, will be itching to get out of the Department for Work and Pensions, not least because the longer he sticks around, the likelier his stock is to fall. His reputation is built largely on effective delivery of the Work Programme  - the flagship “payment by results” reform that rewards private and voluntary sector companies for placing benefit claimants in jobs. Appalling labour market conditions are hollowing out the project and Grayling won’t want to be in his current office when a major provider goes bust or comes begging for a bail out.) Mark Harper, cabinet office minister, and Greg Clark, planning minister, are also being tipped for promotion.

And who will be out? The opportunity is there to dispose of Andrew Lansley whose handling of NHS reforms was deemed catastrophic from beginning to end by all but his very closest friends. As it happens, the Prime Minister has been among his cheeriest cheerleaders (Lansley was his boss at the Conservative Research Department once) and has been impressively, oddly loyal. But the years ahead will produce no shortage of bad news and scandal in a cash-starved health service. Downing Street will need someone running the Department who is an effective communicator capable of reassuring people. That isn’t Lansley.

No-one at the Justice Department expects Ken Clarke to still be the boss by the end of the year. His liberal-minded penal reforms have fallen foul of tabloid scorn and his poisoned relations with Theresa May at the Home Office have brought a level of dysfunction to their corner of Whitehall reminiscent of New Labour rivalries. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman (still resented for bungling forest privatisation) is said to be facing the axe too, along with George Young, leader of the Commons. That would be former Etonian, the 6th Baronet Sir George Samuel Knatchbull Young. Hmm, I can’t think why Cameron would want to move him out of the cabinet in the current climate.

One major catch with the whole re-shuffle plan: what to do with Jeremy Hunt? He is up to his eyeballs in Murdoch mayhem; Labour are demanding his head. The PM has stood by him and insisted that his fate shouldn't be decided until he has had a chance to testify at the Leveson inquiry, so sacking him or even moving him would look like a capitulation. But if he is going down, a whole new set of reshuffle calculations would have to be made. That might be one reason why Cameron will wait a few more weeks, just to see which way the wind is blowing and whether Hunt looks likely to be blown over.

Is Cameron considering a reshuffle?

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

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war