Reshufflitis breaks out in Westminster

The prospect, however slim, of a cabinet vacancy releases a predictable surge of stored up speculati

So the Crown Prosecution has announced it will declare tomorrow morning whether or not Chris Huhne, Energy Secretary, will be charged in relation to allegations - steadfastly denied - that he persuaded his ex-wife to take speeding points on his behalf.

Huhne's statements on this have been unambiguous and robust, so if it turns out the CPS thinks there is a case to pursue he will be in trouble. A prosecution doesn't necessarily mean the man is guilty - he has the right to remain innocent until proven otherwise.

But the noises coming out of Downing Street and Lib Dem high command suggest a sword would quickly be offered for the Energy Secretary to fall upon. He could always use the old line of not wanting the whole business to be a distraction for the government, a position wholly consistent with protestations of innocence.

And indeed the CPS might well say there is insufficient evidence and Huhne can get on with his business (although there is no doubt he has been politically damaged by the accusations either way).

One reason why tomorrow's announcement is anticipated with inordinate excitement in Westminster is the high levels of pent up reshuffle energy. David Cameron has famously avoided swapping ministers between portfolios in the restless way that was Tony Blair's preferred management style. There were some movements and promotions when Liam Fox resigned last year but it was hardly a great re-ordering of the pack. There are good reasons why Cameron hates reshuffles. He wants ministers to actually master their briefs, which takes time. And he heads a coalition, which means a delicate balance of Lib Dems and Tories has to be maintained.

If Huhne has to go - and this is, I hasten to add, veering off a little prematurely into the realms of speculation - a vacancy would be created for David Laws to return to the cabinet, although it is uncertain he would want the Energy portfolio. There has been a fair amonunt of speculation that a lower ranking Lib Dem might up up for elevation. Edward Davey at the Business Department is often tipped for promotion.

But there is a feeling around government that it might, at last, be time for a more ambitious round of musical chairs. Crucially, anxiety about the passage and presentation of health reforms in Downing Street is approaching the status of panic. There is very little confidence left in Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, to explain to people what exactly it is he means to do to the NHS, let alone persuade them it is a good idea. Might a forced reshuffle provide an opportunity to put the Department of Health portfolio into a pair of hands somewhat safer than Lansley's have proved to be?

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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.