Boris Johnson is being rather coy about his chances for promotion. ‘Statistically, I am due to be fired again,’ he tells this month’s GQ magazine. ‘It may be that the psychological effort needed to haul myself around into a more gaffe-free zone proves too difficult.’ This is not the orthodox view: most in Westminster consider this magazine’s former editor overdue a promotion. The only question, as for other rising Tory stars, is: to what job?
The new Conservative line-up has been the subject of frenzied gossip for months. For a while, there was a theory that Mr Cameron would announce his new team before Gordon Brown became Prime Minister — as an act of sheer bravado. ‘It would show that we run our own agenda,’ one aide told me. But since the grammar schools debacle, there is little taste for swashbuckling risks. Labour is now recovering in the polls and Mr Cameron is once again on the defensive.
Mr Brown is expected to keep a few old hands (Jack Straw is tipped to return to the Home Office, for example) but otherwise surround himself with new ministerial faces. It will be a mix of youth and experience, and the two men at the top of the Tory party — Mr Cameron and George Osborne — have more of the former than the latter. For this reason, a theory doing the rounds is that Mr Osborne, shadow chancellor, would swap jobs with his old boss, William Hague, shadow foreign secretary.
This is highly unlikely. As Mr Cameron has now told several people in private, there will be no such manoeuvre. Mr Osborne has disarmed his critics by repeatedly getting under Mr Brown’s skin, and even outpolling him on economic competence. And Mr Hague has no immediate appetite to move.
There are also rumours that David Davis is growing restless as shadow home secretary after almost four years and is seeking a beefed-up defence role instead. My intelligence is different. I understand he wants to stay put, and would consider any other role a demotion. He’s also keen to keep responsibility for prisons — which the government has moved into a new Justice Ministry. After outlasting four home secretaries, and running perhaps the sharpest media operation in the shadow Cabinet, Mr Davis is in a strong position and is unlikely to be moved.
The future of Liam Fox is another favourite topic of speculation. As shadow defence secretary he is not ‘being the change’, runs the argument — after all, doesn’t he drive a gas-guzzling MG and fly a Union flag in the back garden of his new house in Somerset? Not very Gandhi. But the more trouble Mr Cameron ends up in with his party, the more useful Dr Fox is. He happily volunteered to go and bat for the leadership over grammar schools, while Mr Davis observed strict radio silence.
David Willetts is the hot tip for execution. The shadow education secretary may have two brains, it is argued, but neither of them is political, as the schools fiasco showed. He was warned how badly the party grassroots would react to his attack on grammar schools (‘Don’t frighten the horses, or you’ll get crushed in the stampede,’ one colleague told him) but proceeded anyway, with calamitous results.
Yet this, I am told, may have secured his immediate future. ‘Before all this, Willetts was on his way out,’ one of his shadow Cabinet colleagues tells me. ‘Instead, this whole farrago has saved his career. If he was sacked now, it would look as if we’d given a scalp to the backbenchers and you can bet they’d be back looking for more.’
Andrew Lansley’s critics argue that his personal mission to befriend doctors’ and nursing unions has shaped party policy in precisely the wrong way, siding with the provider rather than the user. But these same critics concede that he is safe as shadow health secretary. ‘Cameron’s very keen on him, and that’s the end of it,’ says one colleague, gloomily. What’s more, people who are sacked need to be replaced, and this — for Mr Cameron — is a problem. His pool of potential recruits is depressingly shallow.
Of his 195-strong parliamentary colleagues, just under half entered parliament at the last election. ‘The problem is that, with a few exceptions, the 2001 intake were pretty hopeless,’ says one shadow Cabinet member. ‘There’s a lot of talent from the 2005 intake. But you can’t really put someone who has two years of parliamentary experience on to the front bench.’
You can, however, if one of them is named Michael Gove. As shadow housing minister, he has already scored a significant hit over the home information packs, and is extremely popular within the party and outside it. Ed Vaizey, his best friend and closest ally, is also tipped for elevation. After becoming party leader four years after entering parliament, Mr Cameron is an unlikely stickler for parliamentary gestation period.
The most important appointment of them all has already been made. Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World, starts on 9 July as communications director. The party’s communications strategy has been largely the work of Cameron himself and Steve Hilton. To adapt Diana, Princess of Wales, there will soon be three of them in this marriage.
It will be a challenge. Failure to prise open the Cameron–Hilton relationship is understood to have to led Nick Pisani, former editor of BBC1’s Question Time, to resign as the party’s presentations director last October. It is unlikely Mr Coulson’s appointment will be allowed to fail, and not least because of his £275,000 annual salary. He brings to the Cameron team something it needs beyond media skills: an ability to understand and communicate with C1s and C2s, who traditionally decide British elections.
Mr Cameron knows there is much riding on his next reshuffle. If he wants his shadow Cabinet team to stir even the vaguest recognition in the public, he can’t afford to keep changing them. He needs to convince the voters not just that he’d make a good prime minister, but that, for example, Mr Davis can be trusted on crime, Mr Lansley with the National Health Service and Mr Willetts with schools. If one of these faces does not fit, now is the time to change. Mr Brown will allow him no margin for error.