Deep speculation from David Herdson
Back in the days of the USSR, Western experts attempted to interpret what was going on in the Soviet hierarchy by watching for all sorts of indirect signs, from who sat or stood where at state and party events, to how people were referred to in Pravda. It was an indirect and not particularly reliable art but you make the best use of what you have. To which end, let’s go in for a little Kremlinology of our own.
There was plenty of speculation about a cabinet reshuffle this summer. Just after the Syria vote at the end of August, The Telegraph reported that “up to five ministers face the sack” and that a reshuffle was expected to announce the changes “as soon as next week”. It didn’t happen that week and it hasn’t this week either. Is it going to happen at all?
Although the 2012 reshuffle was conducted in early September, arranged reshuffles are best carried out during June or July, giving the ministers as much time as possible to get to grips with their new briefs before the return of parliament and the party conference season, which starts this weekend.
Even if Cameron went in for another Tory-only reshuffle, it’d be bad for intra-coalition relations were he to do it while his partners were having their conference – but expecting his own ministers to give keynote speeches on topics they’re unfamiliar with is asking for trouble too. Besides, if there is to be a reshuffle, you’d expect Clegg to want his share of it this time given how little change there’s been in the Lib Dem ministerial team since 2010. That pushes the whole thing back to October, at least – but that’s when the parliamentary session really starts to get serious.
We have to assume that Cameron does want another reshuffle, to produce the team he wants to take his party into the next general election. So if it’s not to happen imminently, when will it be? One possibility is to make the changes in December as the term is running down. Another, however, is a more intriguing alternative.
Is the reason that the reshuffle’s been postponed because Cameron is waiting to do it next Summer, or even later? If the Lib Dems were to leave to coalition, or if a new Lib Dem leader to want to pick his own team, that would mean another reshuffle – potentially the third in three years, which is neither good governance nor good politics (as it invites mistakes). Could it be that for all the frustration after the Syria vote, Cameron won’t pick his pre-election team until he’s in a position to work with the Lib Dems’ own pre-election position? If not, why the ultimately unfulfilled speculation about a reshuffle this last month?
All of which makes me wonder whether Clegg has confidentially told Cameron both that he plans to stand down, and when. Clegg’s going at the right time could help both parties and both leaders, if managed well. It would, however, utterly transform the government and that would negate to a large degree the benefits of a reshuffle just now. Which might just be why one hasn’t happened.