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.