It’s reshuffle time again. Let joy in Westminster be uncontained. Rumours abound. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in, out or sideways?
For Labour questions include the unlikely Will this be a glorious leftist revolution? and the more likely Will it be steady as she goes? The coalition have more to worry about right now. Does Cameron have enough women in the Tory Party to move Theresa May, Cheryl Gillan, Baroness Warsi and Caroline Spelman all at once? Does Nick Clegg have any women he can promote to the cabinet at all? Will Vince move? Can Laws return? Who will they keep in the Cabinet just to keep them off the backbenches?
Of course, sometimes personnel issues to speak to the probity of a government or judgement of a leader. If Ed were to take his newly secure berth at the top of the Labour Party and run with it too soon, it would probably bring a screeching halt to the newly emerging narrative of a steadily built and hard won confidence. But Ed has by far the easier option here, with one big beast definitely moving on and one who has signalled a willingness to do so (his speaking too soon shows bad judgement – hardly a reason to keep him on), he has room for promotions and to bring new people through without rocking the boat.
David Cameron has more problems. First he has to fit in Lib Dems in slots that will keep both Parties happy. I have predicted that Vince Cable could be moved to health to oversee the changes implemented by Lansley. While most would consider this a poisoned chalice, I suspect Cable could be persuaded that a capable pair of hands are needed, and that he should do it for the greater good. If that were true, the Tories could then snatch BIS, ensuring a more joined up, Conservative approach to the economy. They would also be in charge of steering through the Enterprise Bill, which might mean far fewer compromises on workers’ rights, likely to be the big argument of the coming legislative session.
As mentioned, Dave wants to sack many under-performing ministers, many of whom are women. Dave has travelled a long way from his A-List days admittedly, but he knows he has a real problem with female voters and given his current plummeting ratings, can’t afford to alienate them further. Bringing some bright young things through the ranks might help, but not enough if the cabinet ends up even more unbalanced than ever.
Nick has an even greater problem. Since the formation of the coalition, the government have been handing out non-jobs like sweeties in order to maximise the so-called ‘Payroll vote’ (despite many of these roles – such as junior whips and Higher Education Tsar being unpaid). This got the Lib Dems through the bruising first round of legislation, but it won’t work forever. The Lib Dems know they face an extremely difficult future, and unless there can be a far greater amount of movement between the ranks and the rest, they will get restless, which may make this legislative session even more unpredictable than the last.
But in the end, very little of this matters. There’s a reason I had a Star Wars and not a Night of the Long Knives sticker book as a child. Cabinet reshuffles don’t really matter. OK, they might add to a narrative that’s already there (as Macmillan’s aforementioned 1962 reshuffle did) and they might shake things up a bit with an unexpected manoeuvre – like Brown resurrecting Mandelson for a third time. But generally, they don’t change much immediately. At the end of the dance, the people’s whose lives will be immediately affected will be those in and out of the government and the shadow cabinet. Half a mile from Westminster, no one really cares.
But my God we love to talk about them. Of course the personnel are important, but the balance of coverage between what is being done, and who is doing it is out of all proportion. Two weeks ago, the legal aid budget was cut, denying poor people equal access to justice. The amount of coverage that move has got is so out of proportion to what – even then – reshuffle rumours gets is evidence still that we may read broadsheets and kid ourselves, but we’re just as led by gossip as if we read Heat Magazine and cared about Jordan’s cellulite.
Reshuffles are the ultimate in gossip. Deliciously thrilling and deeply unimportant.