By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
David Cameron cannot avoid the first major Cabinet reshuffle of his Government this year. The most natural time to have it is after the local elections. Jeremy Hunt's troubles over the BSkyB bid more or less coincide with them.
This yoking-together of the two are a reminder of how small the number of first-order politicians (among whom the able Mr Hunt should be numbered) is at the top of the Conservative Party and how limited the Prime Minister's reshuffle options are, given Coalition.
So which Tories should be promoted after the elections – or during the summer, if he wants to delay until after the Olympics?
My way of answering the question would be first to work out which Conservative members of the Cabinet are first-rank, and which others may be asked to leave.
By first order or first-order, I mean politicians who could be imagined undertaking any Cabinet job. To my mind, these are:
- George Osborne.
- William Hague.
- Theresa May.
- Michael Gove.
- Iain Duncan Smith.
- Philip Hammond.
- Andrew Mitchell.
- Francis Maude (not a full member at present).
- And Mr Hunt.
Those who may be asked to leave by David Cameron I count as follows:
- Andrew Lansley.
- Caroline Spelman (although David Cameron won't want to reduce the number of women in Cabinet overall).
- Sir George Young (again, not a full member: but he is a veteran of John Major's Cabinet – and also too much of a gentleman to resent leaving the Government if asked).
- And Kenneth Clarke (who, confusingly, could also be asked to do any Cabinet job).
(Somewhere between these two categories I count Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson, Justine Greening, Oliver Letwin, Cheryl Gillan, Patrick McLoughlin, Dominic Grieve, David Willetts, and Sayeeda Warsi).
That list, by the way, is roughly in order of increasing vulnerability. I am perhaps being unfair to Eric Pickles, but I can't quite imagine him at Foreign Office or the Treasury, at least yet. Justine Greening is a very recent arrival, but I am getting rave reports from backbenchers.
If one assumes both that no senior Tory – David Davis, Stephen Dorrell, Peter Lilley, John Redwood – will be asked to return, and also that no member of 2010 intake is popped straight in, I would then turn first to senior Ministers to look for replacements.
Which of them have been in Shadow Cabinet? I count:
- Chris Grayling.
- Grant Shapps.
- Damian Green.
- Nick Herbert.
- David Lidington.
- Greg Clark.
- Theresa Villiers.
- John Hayes.
- Alan Duncan.
- Hugo Swire. *
My order is a very rough guess at how they stand in the eyes of Downing Street. I would put alongside it a brief list of contending Ministers who haven't served in Shadow Cabinet. There is a very recent precedent: Ms Greening wasn't even a Minister of State when promoted to Cabinet.
My list is:
- Maria Miller.
- Mark Harper (who now has Lords Reform to add to his list of popular responsibilities, such as votes-for-prisoners).
- Michael Fallon (not a Minister, I concede – but a very senior player now).
So if I were to choose from this list, what would I do? My top three would coincide with what I think Downing Street roughly thinks, and I concede that this may show a lack of imagination. But my reasoning in each case is as follows:
- Chris Grayling: Mr Grayling has a big role at Work and Pensions (Mr Duncan Smith has given him charge of the Work Programme, so he could be imagined stepping up to run a department, the first demand on any Secretary of State. He is very experienced on TV and radio and gets his message out. He is broadly of the right – remember, he was one of only three Shadow Cabinet members to oppose going into coalition after the election – and has recovered from a difficult period as Shadow Home Secretary.
- Grant Shapps: Mr Shapps is highly rated for the energy and attacking zest – which is more rare among Ministers than it should be – that he has brought to his housing portfolio. He is fizzy enough to take risks that most Ministers wouldn't: a memory of him confronting John Humphreys live on Today over the arrangements for the interview sticks in my mind. I sense he'd be a riskier appointment than my other top two, but he deserves his chance, perhaps at CCHQ if the Chairmanship is rationalised under one person.
- Damian Green: Mr Green is the most battle-hardened of the three, having been in Mr Duncan Smith's Shadow Cabinet. He is very deft with the media and carries weight in the Commons. I am not in the least deterred by his place on the old left of the party. All of its strands should be represented in Cabinet – and it's particularly important not to concede political ground to the Liberal Democrats. However, the timing isn't great for Mr Green, since the Home Office team hasn't shown that it can lick the Border Agency into shape.
The weakness of my system is that I'm not selecting horses for courses. Were there to be a vacancy at Justice, for example, Mr Herbert would be the most rational choice, both because he covered the brief in opposition and has robust views on the ECHR.
Or were there to be one at the Environment, Mr Clark would be a strong contender. Mr Lidington knows the Northern Ireland backwards and would make a fine Secretary of State, but I can't see any good reason to move Mr Paterson.
The Prime Minister won't want the number of women in Cabinet to fall, and his opposition pledge to ensure that a third of Conservative woman are Ministers still stands. Which is why I believe that Mrs Miller will make it to Cabinet this time round, and perhaps Ms Villiers too.
More broadly, the Prime Minister should give the Government a wider variety of faces and voices. Among Ministers, Mark Francois* and Mike Penning look and sound different to the party leadership, and should occupy a bigger place in the sun.
The Midlands and North are strikingly under-represented in the Government. Among Ministers outside Cabinet, I count two with Midlands seats – Peter Luff and Andrew Robothan, both of whom have rural constituencies – and one with a more northern (and again rural) one: Stephen O'Brien.
But I believe the faces-and-voices question is best addressed by looking to the 2010 intake, who tend to represent the northern and Midlands suburban seats that the older intakes do not.
* George Lees correctly points out below that Mark Francois was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet when he was Europe Minister.