Andrew Grice: George Osborne the octopus pulls the PM into troubled waters

Inside Westminster

More chairs! We need more chairs!" The cry went up in 10 Downing Street as the new Cabinet prepared to meet on Wednesday. The number of full cabinet members and other ministers "allowed to attend" had risen from 29 to 32 after the demoted Kenneth Clarke and Baroness Warsi were compensated with second-division status. It was a struggle to squeeze them all round the coffin-shaped table.

The final seat in this game of musical chairs went to the returning Liberal Democrat David Laws. He was not "allowed to attend" Cabinet when his post as an Education minister was announced on Tuesday but, after some last-minute arm-twisting by Nick Clegg, was let in by the time the Cabinet met.

Labour was wrong to dismiss the new line-up as "no change". Mr Cameron showed a ruthless streak that many Conservative MPs believed he did not possess. The atmosphere in some Whitehall departments has already changed after right-wing Tories were installed to change policy (Owen Paterson at Environment, Chris Grayling at Justice) or rein in Liberal Democrats (Michael Fallon to "mind" Vince Cable at Business and John Hayes to squash Ed Davey at Energy and Climate Change).

It was George Osborne's reshuffle as much as Mr Cameron's. The Chancellor was dubbed "the octopus" in Tory circles as his tentacles spread throughout Whitehall. Key allies were promoted, enemies sidelined – notably Justine Greening, pushed out of Transport after 10 months for defending too vigorously the Coalition's policy of opposing a third Heathrow runway. "Her only crime was to stand up to Osborne," one cabinet minister said.

It was, the Liberal Democrats judged, a reshuffle for the Tory party rather than the country. The big question is whether Mr Cameron was merely shoring up his position in his party or will now try to push through traditional Tory policies. Mr Clegg privately views the cabinet shake-up as both a danger and an opportunity. The danger is that the Coalition descends into never-ending rows as the Liberal Democrats veto right-wing proposals, undermining the third party's goal of showing that "coalition works".

The opportunity is that blocking a harsh "true blue" agenda could play well with the voters. But it will be a very difficult balancing act. Mr Osborne's demand for a further £10bn of welfare savings will be the crucial battleground. The Chancellor failed to get Mr Grayling promoted to the top job at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) when Iain Duncan Smith refused to move to Justice. Instead, Mr Osborne dispatched Treasury minister Mark Hoban,  to be No 2 at the DWP, another spy in the camp. Mr Duncan Smith will have an important ally in Mr Clegg, who was delighted to see him refuse to budge. Their views on welfare reform are similar. So is their opposition to the Treasury's proposed cuts, which they fear would harm the most vulnerable. In June, Mr Cameron floated controversial proposals, including time-limiting some benefits; scrapping housing benefit for under-25s; curbing handouts for single mothers with three or more children and regional benefit levels. Cameron aides believe welfare cuts are popular and polls do suggest opinion against claimants has hardened in the age of austerity. Although the Coalition will approve some limited welfare savings, Mr Clegg may prove to be Mr Duncan Smith's best friend. The Deputy Prime Minister will tell Mr Cameron to put his hardline proposals in the Tory manifesto for 2015.

Some natural Cameron allies fear that this week's apparent lurch to the right sets him on a dangerous path. He knows elections are won and lost on the centre ground and allies believe that harder-edged policies on welfare, law and order and human rights will boost the Tories' electoral prospects in 2015. But, like Mr Clegg, the PM faces a very difficult balancing act. Some Tory modernisers fear the reshuffle will set back his project to "detoxify" the Conservatives, making it easier for Labour to portray them as the "nasty party". It might be harder for Mr Cameron to appeal to the whole country in 2015 if he does not live up in office to the image he portrayed before the 2010 election – not least on green issues. The new Cabinet is not going to deliver his promise to be "the greenest government ever". Mr Osborne has killed that one. If voters think Mr Cameron's mask has slipped on the environment, they might take the same view on other issues like the NHS. That really would be toxic.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Life and Style
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
The John Peel Lecture has previously been given by Pete Townshend of The Who, Billy Bragg and Charlotte Church
musicGodfather of punk will speak on 'free music in a capitalist society'
News
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
News
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments