David Cameron's Cabinet Reshuffle: Gossip, Guesswork and Predictions

Barely two, possibly three, weeks to go before David Cameron's predicted reshuffle, the first such unforced exercise since the general election.

Yet the Whitehall rumour mill is barely generating enough power to fuel a light bulb, apart from that old chestnut about sacking Ken Clarke and the newer ones about Mayor Boris sacking Dave or Dave sacking his chum, George.

That's partly because reshuffles usually take place in July to give ex-ministers time away from Westminster to nurse their injured dignity and their successors time to find their way to the departmental loo without help and to start reading through the paperwork before MPs – including those who thought they should have been promoted – come back to torment them. In August there's not enough gossip to turn the mill wheel properly.

In the British system reshuffles actually took place too frequently in July under both Tory and Labour governments. Ministers need time to get on top of their difficult issues and when they are, they are often moved too rapidly to do much good. Transport and trade (now BIS) are notoriously expendable cabinet posts; while lower down the pecking order, so Chris Mullin noted sorrowfully in his diaries, the Africa minister's post changed seven times under Tony Blair – and Blair was supposed to care about Africa.

Now it's different in several ways. Reshuffles were once two-dimensional. A prime minister had a list of middle-aged white men, usually middle or upper middle-class chaps, and had to balance factions, personalities and ideology. Most of that still applies – though ideology is mostly at a discount nowadays – but it's at least four-dimensional. Cameron has the Lib Dems to consider – a very inhibiting fact – and he also has gender (women matter!) and possibly regions.

There was no Eton quota 50 years ago either, let alone a posh-boy quota; there is now. So unfair when George Osborne's chums in the Bullingdon Club nicknamed him "Oik" because he only went to St Paul's, his local independent school in west London.

So the inability to move the deckchairs very easily in a two-party, two-gender coalition has been an overall benefit. No, don't tell me about Cameron's urgent need to sack his chancellor. Those two really are "all in this together" and – as Nick Watt and team report – Osborne will be forced to modify Plan A this autumn under pressure from left, right and events. He will tweak it, but not abandon it. Cameron will stand by him.

William Hague will therefore not get his job; he will stay – unhappily, I suspect – at the Foreign Office. You can't have much of a foreign policy if you don't have much money to spend: Clem Attlee's foreign secretary, the great Ernie Bevin, understood that when he asked the miners to dig more coal.

Who else? It's a mug's game, really. The prime minister is on holiday and may even know by now roughly what he'd like to do, but not if he can do it: it was ever thus, as even Margaret Thatcher discovered when Minister A refused to move to Minister B's job or John Patten refused Northern Ireland. The rest of us can only gossip or tip X for Y's job, a notoriously counterproductive activity for MPs and reporters alike.

"The best I can do to help is attack you in print," is what I say to over-eager wannabes. Chris Grayling and Grant Shapps, two very eager mid-ranking ministers who are being tipped for promotion (again) would be wise to keep their heads down and stop cultivating hacks. "The Great Mentioner", as the US version is sometimes known in Washington, has ruined many a career.

Will Ken Clarke finally be dropped over the side at 72? As a young barrister of very modest background – his dad was a watchmaker – the current justice secretary and lord chancellor was first elected in 1970 (at 29), became a government whip under Ted Heath two years later and has been (uniquely) in every Tory government for every day of their existence ever since. His only rival, Sir George Young (71), leader of the Commons, was briefly sacked by Thatcher for quasi-communism (he's a mildly liberal Etonian) before being brought back (also uniquely). The Sunday Telegraph reported Clarke as "refusing" to go, the Guardian as "fighting" for his (and Young's) job. The BBC reports Clarke as languidly denying both while saying he wants to remain in post because he has an agenda to complete.

Clarke's been round this course so often, it must be boring. In the rightwing's cooking pot, then rescued again at the last minute. Being confident enough and disinclined to piety to speak his mind, he gets into scrapes. His "date rape" remark in 2011 has echoes of George Galloway's current furore: you can see the distinction they're trying to make, that violent sexual assault by a burglar in the dead of night is quite a different experience. It's not an acceptable thing to say in the present social climate.


But "relaxed" and "fighting" for his job can't be true? Of course they can. He wants to stay on but will find plenty to do – he has all that hinterland in jazz, bird-watching, cigars, cricket and books – if his time is up. Ditto George Young, though I suspect the other oldster around the coffin-shaped cabinet table, Vince Cable, a slightly less youthful 69, would be more upset to be sacked because he feels he represents a counterweight in government to the neo-liberal tendencies represented by so many younger colleagues, including Nicholas Clegg. For that reason alone I expect him to stay put.

Interestingly all three oldies are on the leftish side of most Tory arguments. Does that reflect greater wisdom and experience ? Yes, says elderly me. No, reply the Desperate Daniel Hannans of this world, it's generational prejudice which is out of date. We'll see. How's the supply side economic recovery coming along, Dan?

And who exactly is in cabinet? They are not household names or faces. Cheryl Gillan, the high-speed-train-bashing Welsh secretary, seems set to go, but that will barely be noticed even in Cardiff. Her likely successor, clever Maria Miller, grew up in Wales, but this may be a temporary post in transit upwards.

Michael Gove? He'll stay put, he's the current star of the restless Tory pundits. Andrew Lansley? He's got to stay, he's the only one who understands his legislation. Jeremy Hunt? A tempting target after the Murdoch fiasco.

Watching Hunt and Clarke give evidence on the same day to the Leveson inquiry I did the maths and realised that Ken has been an MP six times as long as Jezza. And boy, did it show. That's the real reason for keeping him in cabinet: it's the oldies who can say: "Sorry, that won't work." But moving Hunt or sacking him will stir the hornet's nest too.

I'd wager that Caroline Spelman (environment) is vulnerable, as is Lady Warsi (party chairman) except that she's a two-fer, both a woman and a Muslim one. Eric Pickles (communities and local government), anyone? No, he's more or less working-class and Yorkshire, every cabinet needs a sample. IDS? No, he cares even if he gets a lot wrong (like food banks). Andrew Mitchell (international development)? Would you notice? But he's a symbol of defanged Toryism and (I think) a Dave chum. Crafty Lord Strathclyde (Lords)? Good question, but it no longer matters, now they've junked Lords reform.

Another thing. Since Osborne's in the doghouse his fingerprints can't be seen on this reshuffle, so his acolytes (Matt Hancock?) shouldn't waste too much time waiting by the phone. Even before Clegg offers his two pennies' worth, it's tricky, and cabinet government matters less than it did in an era of over-mighty quasi-presidential leadership. It should matter more, so a strong cabinet matters. Even Thatcher, who started so much of the rot, knew that and liked people who stood up to her (for a time, anyway).

One last thought. Those Tory MPs elected in 2010 and especially 2005 are no longer the patient souls of yesterday: they want jobs and want them now; they have self-belief. If they see court favourites such as Hancock, Nick Boles or Claire Perry (unlucky enough to have a recent Guardian profile) getting a foot on the ministerial ladder they will be cross. The Cameroons have quite enough aggro on their party management plate without creating more.

As for Boris Johnson, ex-MP Paul Goodman offers a witty account of the angel and devil wrestling for his soul here on the ConservativeHome website. Spot on.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for guardian.co.uk on Wednesday 22nd August 2012 14.42 Europe/London

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