Ken Clarke has warned David Cameron that replacing him with a right-winger in the forthcoming reshuffle will lead to the "retoxification" of the Tory party.
The salvo from the pro-European Justice Secretary comes as a poll for The Independent on Sunday shows confidence in the coalition has slumped in the past year, with six out of 10 people claiming the Liberal Democrats are not a credible party of government.
Mr Cameron is being urged to use the reshuffle, expected early next month, to put together a more "red meat" Tory ministerial line-up that will appeal to party grassroots. The findings of the poll will fuel calls for Tory right-wingers to be given more prominent roles to pave the way for an eventual split in the coalition.
Theresa May, the Home Secretary, will not be reshuffled but will be told by the Prime Minister to be more visible in the autumn, trumpeting the Tories' law-and-order message. "People don't know what we stand for on crime," said a source.
There has been speculation that Mr Clarke, 72, will be replaced by a flag bearer for the party's right, with names in the frame including the former leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has won plaudits as Work and Pensions Secretary for his aggressive benefit reforms, and the Employment minister, Chris Grayling.
But the Justice Secretary has baulked at the idea. According to sources, Mr Clarke told friends: "If he replaces me with a hard-line right-winger, it will be another step towards retoxification of the party."
Liberal Democrats are also dismayed at the prospect of losing Mr Clarke. A senior source said: "He is the sixth Lib Dem in the Cabinet. The last thing we want to see is him being given the boot to make way for a hang 'em and flog 'em old-style Tory."
Downing Street insiders report a growing anxiety at the Government's apparent inability to get a grip on the news agenda. George Osborne, the Chancellor, has faced months of negative headlines since his Budget in March which eventually saw U-turns on taxes on pasties and charities.
Mr Cameron is understood to be considering a "cosmetic" change which would see Mr Osborne publicly stripped of his role as the Conservatives' senior political strategist, after claims he was acting as a "part-time Chancellor".
Instead the role would go to a new party chairman. Sources close to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, say he would be reluctant to become chairman.
Grant Shapps, the Housing minister, is tipped for promotion, along with Greg Clark, the Communities minister. Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, could be promoted to party chairman, given her "broad appeal" with the party as a Rotherham-born MP for a London seat.
The IoS poll will make difficult holiday reading for Nick Clegg, whose party remains on 10 per cent, with the Tories on 33 per cent, up one point from last month, and Labour unchanged on 42 per cent. A year ago, 24 per cent of people agreed that being in coalition with the Tories had shown the Lib Dems to be a credible party of government, with 52 per cent disagreeing. Today just 18 per cent agree that the Lib Dems are credible, while 61 per cent disagree.
Mr Clegg's leadership ratings have improved slightly, however, with his net approval at minus 35, compared with minus 42 a month ago. Voters are split over whether Mr Cameron was right to abandon changes to the Upper House, and also divided over whether the Lib Dem leader should have vowed to vote against boundary changes in revenge.
Mr Cameron's ratings are unchanged, on minus 27, while Ed Miliband's have fallen from minus 17 to minus 20.
Worryingly for George Osborne, 54 per cent of people believe the UK's economic condition will not improve over the next 12 months, compared with 24 per cent who are optimistic.
There are signs of growing support for the Union, with 31 per cent of people in Scotland believing it should be an independent country, compared with 38 per cent in May 2011, while support for Scottish independence has also fallen among voters in England and Wales – 24 per cent today compared with 32 per cent in May 2011.
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