David Cameron has long been keen for his shadow Cabinet to exude greater empathy with recession-struck Britain — and he has inadvertently succeeded in one important regard. Most are now fearful of losing their jobs. The coming reshuffle is being spoken of like a vicious redundancy plan that could claim any scalp at random. Frontbenchers anxiously read and decode newspaper stories — particularly for the latest word on Ken Clarke’s potential return and what that might mean. The suspense is agonising.
Reshuffle speculation is normally a media game. This time, few shadow ministers have been able to wish each other happy new year without then discussing for whom, precisely, it will be most happy. The febrile atmosphere has itself shed intriguing light on the nervous system (and nervous state) of the Conservatives, the relationship between the party and its high command, and the direction in which power is shifting.
None of this can be explained without reference to the Norman Shaw South building, the adopted home of the Cameroons. It is only seven minutes away from the Commons chamber, via a bridge, a lift and a tunnel, but it has come to represent a quite separate inner sanctum where power rests and decisions are taken. George Osborne, Oliver Letwin and their respective staffs are based here — a sort of Downing Street-in-waiting. The rest of the front bench is dotted around the parliamentary complex — sometimes in clusters, elsewhere in isolation.
David Starkey made his name as a Tudor historian by demonstrating the importance of the layout of Henry VIII’s court to its politics and factions. He would find precisely the same principles at work today in Parliament. This is why, in the Strangers’ Bar, one hears grumbles that Norman Shaw South is a closed clique, ‘Dave’s Nest’. But, comes the retort, shadow Cabinet members are begged to get involved, to give up their second jobs and get stuck in. Many don’t. So this leaves those in the supposed Cameroon ‘nest’ to do the heavy lifting.
Those in Norman Shaw South may laugh at the more fevered reshuffle speculation in the press, much of which strikes them as demonstrable nonsense. ‘But the troops don’t think it’s nonsense,’ explains one frontbencher. ‘And that’s the problem’. Email is no substitute for direct contact. The geographic dislocation of the Tory office layout has broken lines of communication. All of this feeds paranoia and amplifies the Chinese whispers echoing around Parliament.
Many of these whispers can be traced to remarks that Andrew Mackay was making too loudly over dinner one evening recently — to the effect that Mr Cameron had decided to sack a senior frontbencher the day after the election. You might imagine these remarks to be of little consequence — Mr Mackay being only a former whip with almost no public profile. But those aware of his real significance in the party today would have craned their necks to listen, for he occupies an increasingly important and little-documented role. In the words of one shadow Cabinet member, he has become ‘something of a Rasputin figure’. Officially, he is ‘political and parliamentary adviser to the leader of the opposition’ — an intriguing title which gives him a passport to Mr Cameron’s morning meetings. But his real role is much broader. ‘Some time ago, David said to him: “I want you to be my Willie”,’ one MP tells me — referring, of course, to the service the late Lord Whitelaw supplied to Baroness Thatcher. ‘That’s Mackay’s skill: he can sniff the air, tell which tribes are forming, who’s up to mischief. He reports back to Cameron.’ Hence his potential relevance as a reshuffle rune-reader. Mr Mackay can advise as to which groupings need to be kept sweet, and which frontbenchers can be safely disposed of. His role does not require him to be popular, and his friends say he is happy in the shadows and ‘likes his holidays too much to join the front bench’. While his influence is rather mysterious, it is not seen as malign. As the leader’s office operates in a separate orbit from Parliament, Mr Cameron needs the best intelligence he can get.
Mr Clarke, the 68-year-old comeback kid around whom much of the speculation is swirling, is apparently birdwatching in Paraguay — although no one seems to be quite sure of that — unaware of the consternation caused by his proposed return to the front bench. The man he is tipped to replace as shadow business secretary, Alan Duncan, returned early from a skiing holiday to defend his turf and ended up being taunted by interviewers about being ‘worried about unemployment’.
In this way, the reshuffle speculation has taken on a life of its own — and it needs to be ended. Mr Cameron is expected to move Caroline Spelman, party chairman, but had wanted to wait until after the parliamentary investigation into her 1997 decision to pay her nanny with MPs’ expenses. He may now have to move her anyway, perhaps swapping her with Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary. Party chairman is no longer a coveted job, its powers having been already divided up between Lord Ashcroft (candidates), Mr Osborne (campaigns) and Mr Letwin (research). All that is left for the chairman to do is visit candidates and eat rubber chicken at Tory association fêtes.
Yet being chairman has one main advantage: it brings an unrivalled chance to charm the Tory members who would one day be voting on a new leader. The more extravagantly imaginative speculation presents Mr Hunt as the through-the-middle victor in a 2018 struggle with Boris Johnson and Mr Osborne. Yet if that is indeed his private game-plan, he’d be advised to wait and campaign for Ms Spelman to stay. ‘Being chairman is now a non-job,’ says one of her colleagues. ‘And Caroline does it brilliantly.’
The irony is that, after all this terror, there may be no major reshuffle. Last weekend, Mr Cameron had still not decided whether to promote Mr Clarke or leave him to his golden-winged warblers. David Davis would only come back for a senior job, but none will be on offer. Andrew Lansley has been told he will stay at health, Mr Osborne as shadow chancellor and Dominic Grieve as shadow home secretary. The reshuffle speculation has grown out of all proportion to Mr Cameron’s self-restricted room for manoeuvre.
It is, of course, no bad thing to unnerve one’s party now and again, and remind them that, as one Cameroon puts it, ‘no one is untouchable’. It is healthy for the Tories to believe that Mr Cameron is ruthless enough to move anyone. But it is less healthy when shadow Cabinet members are reduced to showing off text messages Mr Cameron sent them, supposedly as proof that they will keep their job. This is why the reshuffle, minor or extensive, will likely come sooner rather than later. If the aim was to send his front bench a message about complacency, then Mr Cameron has succeeded all too well. The poor souls have suffered enough.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated January 17, 2009