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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Labour MPs believe Jeremy Corbyn is incapable of tackling anti-Semitism

The leader's insistence that "there's no crisis" has led more to conclude that he must be removed.  

In a competitive field, yesterday was the most surreal - and shameful - day for Labour since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. After a telling delay, Corbyn arrived at the only response that was acceptable to MPs: the suspension of Ken Livingstone. The former mayor of London, who appears incapable of entering a studio without triggering outrage, surpassed himself by claiming Hitler supported Zionism (as if to invalidate the latter). In time-honoured fashion, he then responded to criticism by pouring petrol on the fire. In remarks that caused journalists to question their hearing, Livingstone opined that "a real anti-Semite doesn't just hate the Jews in Israel". 

Two hours later, one of Corbyn's greatest allies was finally suspended (the day after Naz Shah MP had been). But the announcement itself added new offence. The email confirming Livingstone's suspension simultaneously revealed that John Mann MP, who had denounced the former mayor as a "Nazi apologist", had been summoned by the chief whip to "discuss his conduct" - as if their behaviour was somehow comparable. Labour sources later told me that Corbyn's office had wanted to go further and suspend Mann - a demand flatly rejected by the whips. Their resistance has revived the desire among some of the leader's allies for a cull in a future reshuffle. 

But it was Corbyn's conduct in a BBC interview that truly provoked MPs' fury. "It's not a crisis, there's no crisis," he declared, unwittingly echoing the Sun's headline on Jim Callaghan during the Winter of Discontent ("Crisis? What crisis?"). It was as if Hitlergate had never happened. Corbyn added that "the party membership is the biggest it has been in my lifetime" (it was actually higher in 1997) and that "much of this criticism that you are saying about a crisis in the party actually comes from those who are nervous of the strength of the Labour Party at local level". MPs, he appeared to suggest, were not motivated by a desire to repel Labour's anti-Semitic infection but by fear of the party's left-wing membership.

Livingstone's suspension was "very sad", Corbyn said, but "there is a responsibility to lead the party". The abiding impression was that he had suspended his old comrade with the utmost reluctance - it was the burden of office that had forced him to do so. Finally, Corbyn declared, as he always does on these too-frequent occasions, "we are not tolerating anti-Semitism in any way or indeed any other kind of racism." Labour's leader appears congenitally incapable of condemning Jew-hatred in insolation. The explanation, some MPs say, is that he subscribes to a "hierarchy of racism" under which anti-Semitism is a lesser offence than, say, Islamophobia. In rejecting a systematic focus on the former, Corbyn's critics say he is in denial about the scale and significance of the infestation.  

His apathy has intensified the desire of his opponents to remove him before the year is out. "The soft left moved massively today," one MP told me in reference to Labour's internal swing voters. Another said: "It does two things: it firmly pins responsibility for next week's results on the hard-left antics [Labour is forecast to become the first opposition since 1985 to lose council seats in a non-general election year] and it weakens the willingness of the 'core group' servers to keep mopping up after Corbyn because they are increasingly mortified by the association". But others disagreed: "It's strangely less likely," one said of the prospect of a challenge, "the mood is 'keep giving him the rope'". Another said that Labour MPs, traditionally sentimental towards their leaders, lacked the "constitution" for the struggle. "They can always find an excuse why now isn't the right time," he lamented. Without an agreed candidate, and without even agreement on whether there should be a challenge, Corbyn's opponents fear that "even worse is to come". 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.