The PM is due to shake up his team early this week. Photo: Getty
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Reshuffle speculation: a round-up

A shake-up of government figures is expected early this week. Here are the latest rumours.

As the Westminster world anticipates a reshuffle early this week, here is a round-up of the latest speculation about who’s going where, and who’s going home (well, back to the backbench).

 

Ladies first

The Sun on Sunday reported this weekend that David Cameron is hoping for a “Tory first lady” to represent the party going into the 2015 general election. And this reshuffle is being seen as the PM’s opportunity to promote a number of women to top positions, having been criticised during previous reshuffles for failing to come closer to fulfilling his commitment to a third of his government being female by the end of his first term.

Not everyone is thrilled that the PM is scouring his backbenches for female talent; the Mail’s Amanda Platell is derisive of this move, calling it “a cynically calculated attempt to make him more appealing to female voters”, and saying it’s too much, too late.

There are many talented female Conservative MPs who have been almost unanimously tipped by the papers for promotion. These include education minister Liz Truss, a free-thinker who I’m told has often felt stifled by the Department for Education’s penchant for rather exacting, controlling special advisers; Treasury minister Nicky Morgan; work and pensions minister Esther McVey, a former TV presenter who the Today programme reported this morning is expected by some to become “minister for television”, and one of the most prominent backbenchers of the new Tory radical rightwing vanguard, Priti Patel, is expected to be given a government post.

When Maria Miller resigned as culture secretary earlier this year during an expenses row, and was replaced by Sajid Javid, I was told by a senior Tory MP that both Truss and McVey were rather put out by the PM’s decision to promote an already-senior man to a position once filled by a woman. They have been waiting their turn for a seat at the cabinet table.

The Independent’s Jane Merrick gives a whole host of further names of female Tory backbenchers who the PM would do well to put into government roles: Nicola Blackwood, Angie Bray, Fiona Bruce, Therese Coffey, Tracey Crouch, Caroline Dinenage, Jackie Doyle-Price, Rebecca Harris, Margot James, Pauline Latham, Jessica Lee, Charlotte Leslie, Mary Macleod, Anne Main, Penny Mordaunt, Sarah Newton and Caroline Nokes.

She writes: “If we are including whips – and, as members of the Government, they should be counted – and Lib Dems, there are 129 jobs in the coalition. At the moment, 27 government members are women. To make it one-third, this needs to increase to 42.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, about whom there have been whispers over the past weeks, is now expected to be safe in her job.

 

Out with the pale, male and stale

Many news outlets are spelling the end for the old guard of senior politicians who have been hanging around the cabinet for a long time. Here at the New Statesman, George Eaton wrote on Friday that this reshuffle would see the end of the One Nation Tories in the cabinet, reporting that veteran cabinet member and current minister without portfolio Ken Clarke will be culled, along with fellow Tory “wet” George Young, who replaced Andrew Mitchell as chief whip in 2012. Greg Hands, currently deputy chief whip, is expected to replace Young.

The Times includes leader of the house and former health secretary Andrew Lansley in its death knell for the “pale, male and stale” of this government, reporting today that last night “the Conservatives ruled out choosing an MP as the next European commissioner.” Lansley was hoping to take this role, but apparently the Tories are unwilling to risk another by-election.

Additionally, the website PoliticsHome is reporting the Sun’s story that up to 20 ministers are for the chop, including Welsh Secretary David Jones, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and Science Minister David Willetts.

 

Never outfoxed

But not all the male, Tory big names will be departing. The former defence secretary – who was forced to leave the position in 2011 due to inadvisably carting his friend around as a lobbyist – Liam Fox is due for a “surprise comeback”. Always considered a more dynamic cabinet secretary than his successor Philip Hammond, Fox certainly hasn’t kept quiet on the backbenches since his departure, and it looks like Cameron’s been listening. Fox is tipped to return for a “key role” in the run-up to the election, as the Mail reports, though the Times suggests it won’t be as chief whip, as many have been speculating.

In other news of comebacks from those who have previously had to resign, Mark Harper – the immigration minister whose cleaner was an illegal immigrant ­– is expected to return, although probably not to another Home Office role. Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip embroiled in the Plebgate affair, was down for a comeback, but it’s unlikely considering he is still in libel proceedings.

 

Still in work and pensions

Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary about whose imminent reshuffle there have been multiple reports in recent days, is now rumoured to be staying in his job after all.

The speculation was fired up by a supposedly high-level conversation overheard by a commuter on a train: "The call kept dropping out because of the tunnels but she rang him straight back, talking about Ian and Esther. She didn't seem to care. She said 'Ian wants to go and has agreed to go, he's been fed up for a while waiting for decisions from the Treasury'."

 

EU who?

There have been a number of candidates hankering after the role of European Commissioner for a while, but many of them will be disappointed as it emerges that the Tory party has apparently ruled out choosing a current MP for a role, to avoid triggering a by-election. The hopeful MPs are said to include Andrew Mitchell, Andrew Lansley, Michael Fallon, Philip Hammond, Justine Greening and Lib Dem Michael Moore. However, according to the Times, it is now expected the job is more likely to go to Lord Howard of Lympne, the former Conservative leader, Lord Hill of Oareford, the Tory leader in the upper chamber, and Baroness Wheatcroft, the former newspaper editor.

 

You Swinson, you lose some

A story emerged last week that Lib Dem business and women and equalities minister Jo Swinson, tipped often to take the first female Lib Dem cabinet position, would be promoted in this reshuffle. However, our George Eaton has reported that while Nick Clegg considered this move, potentially to replace Ed Davey as Energy Secretary, her promotion will be delayed until after the Scottish referendum, when she is set to replace Alistair Carmichael as Scotland Secretary.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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