If PM insists on keeping Osborne, where will the boost come from?

Aug 28, 2012
Richard Ehrman

This is Cameron's chance to bring new faces into his cabinet – he needs to make the most of it

WHEN David Cameron returns to work at the end of this week, the forthcoming ministerial reshuffle will be top of the agenda. He can't be looking forward to it.

By tradition reshuffles are annual events, but this will be the first proper one he has held. None of the departures from his Cabinet so far - David Laws, Liam Fox or Chris Huhne - have been at his instigation.

For a prime minister, wielding the knife is never easy. For Cameron, boxed in by the constraints of coalition, it promises to be even more tortuous than usual. Juggling his party will be crucial; sacked ministers don't always hide their disappointment, while many ambitious backbenchers have concluded that this may be their last chance of promotion before an election they now expect Labour to win.

Then there are the Lib Dems to consider. The ratio of appointments between the two parties may be set in stone, but does the PM have any say in which Lib Dems stay or go, or which slots they hold, or is that purely a matter for his deputy, Nick Clegg?  

And if it is up to Clegg would he feel strong enough to, say, move Vince Cable, which is something most Tories would dearly love to see? Because we have not had a coalition reshuffle in living memory, nobody really knows the answers.

If that is not complicated enough, there is also the question of George Osborne. A poll in today's Guardian has 48 per cent of those questioned saying he should get the sack. But Cameron has already confirmed that he will stay in post – no surprise, since politically they are inseparable.

Yet given the Chancellor's recent lacklustre performance, it does look like a hostage to fortune.

After two years with no sign of recovery, the Government badly needs to show that it can finally generate some growth. However, three out of the four important economic posts in the coalition cabinet - the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Business Secretary and the Energy Secretary - are all held by Lib Dems. If they stay put, and Osborne with them, it is going to be hard for the PM to claim that the economy is at the forefront of his concerns.

On the Conservative side the other area crying out for attention is the role of party chairman. Under Cameron the job has been split between two relatively unknown peers, the energetic but inexperienced Lady Warsi and the all but invisible Lord Feldman, an old chum from Oxford.
That might have worked in happier days, but with Ed Miliband upping his game the party should be looking for a chairman with real political clout. Michael Gove would be ideal, were it not that his school reforms might be lost without him. An alternative candidate is Michael Fallon, the current deputy chairman, who has impressed by his steadiness under fire over recent months and also has the advantage of being trusted by the Tory right.

Even a heavyweight chairman, however, will struggle to persuade the world that this government can rediscover the energy and sense of purpose that marked the first year of the coalition, unless Cameron himself is prepared to be bold.

Boxed in though he may be, there are a number of cabinet ministers who could make way for new talent, but only if the PM has the steel to move them.

The ill-starred Andrew Lansley at Health and Caroline Spelman at Environment are both widely seen as dispensable. So too, though more on grounds of age than competence, are Ken Clarke at Justice and Leader of the House Sir George Young. Add in Cheryl Gillan, who is expected to leave the Welsh Office, and the PM would be able to bring five new Conservatives into the cabinet.

On past form Cameron may reckon that is going too far. But all the four great offices of state - the Foreign, Home and Defence Secretaries along with the Chancellor - are tipped to remain unchanged.

This reshuffle is one of the few chances the Conservatives will get to reboot their flagging fortunes before the election. To paraphrase Dickens in Bleak House, if it turns out to be mainly a matter of replacing Noodle with Poodle as Under Secretary at the Woods and Forests, the voters won't even notice.

Meanwhile, in City Hall the prince across the water watches and waits. If the reshuffle does not work for Cameron, there will be no shortage of Conservatives wondering whether Boris might not have made a better fist of it.

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Cameron's only chance to win the next general election is to ditch Osborne NOW

Cameron threw the next election away the moment he formed the Coalition - he should have had the wisdom to wait for the 2015 election by letting Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg so alienate themselves from the electorate that both Labour and the Lib Dems would remain unelectable for a generation!