Speculation grows over Cabinet reshuffle

The news that Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly is to quit the Cabinet will spark a fresh bout of feverish reshuffle speculation.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown is widely expected to shake up his team of top ministers at the end of next week, either Thursday or Friday, following the Conservative conference and before MPs return to Westminster.

All eyes will be on whether he shifts any of those holding the major offices of state - alleged rival David Miliband as Foreign Secretary, Chancellor Alistair Darling, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith or ultra-loyal Justice Secretary Jack Straw.

Mr Miliband has had a gaffe-prone week at his party's Manchester conference, capping it today by saying he hoped to remain at the FCO.

Ministers are traditionally supposed to defer to the Premier's right to dispose of his patronage how he wishes, not publicly appeal to stay put.

And they are also traditionally not supposed to stoke reshuffle speculation by responding to questions about possible changes.

But now Mr Miliband has gone on the record as wanting to remain Foreign Secretary, any move against him would be doubly regarded as a brutal slap-down.

Though he may therefore remain unmoved by the reshuffle, some observers feel he may have had not his "Heseltine moment", but his Portillo moment, at this week's gathering.

Michael Portillo's Tory leadership ambitions sunk without trace after he was said to have installed banks of phones prior to standing, then backed off.

If Mr Brown's supporters argue that changing premiers during a financial crisis would be a fatal mistake, the same argument would surely apply to dumping the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr Straw can virtually name his own job and there is no evidence he wants a swap, having already served as foreign and home secretaries. He could, however, be anointed Deputy Prime Minister.

Ms Smith has had a mixed, but generally good, reception as Home Secretary and Mr Brown would be loathe to lose a high-profile woman minister.

So who could face the chop? Ms Kelly's job is now up for grabs and others in danger could be Chief Whip Geoff Hoon, Business Secretary John Hutton, Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy or Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward.

Their jobs could effectively be made redundant if Mr Brown decides to create a unified ministry of the devolved nations and the English regions.

Mr Hoon could be replaced by the premier's ultra-loyal colleague Nick Brown, already Mr Hoon's deputy.

But one Labour MP today cautioned against a speculated move for Mr Hoon to replace Peter Mandelson as the UK's EU commissioner.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) warned: "Frankly this would mean another unwelcome by-election and an unnecessary one.

"The by-election is likely to occur not too far from a general election. Electorates don't like elections they often consider are 'unnecessary' and Geoff's Ashfield constituency has a track record in this regard." In one of the most sensational by-election results, Tories captured Ashfield from Labour in 1977 on a 20.8% swing.

Who could be the rising stars entering the Cabinet in a crucial period for the Prime Minister?

Housing minister Caroline Flint already attends Cabinet meetings and would be an obvious candidate.

Immigration minister Liam Byrne has also been tipped for promotion and is said to have impressed the premier with his work at the Home Office.

Schools minister Jim Knight has also been mentioned, and Cabinet Office minister Phil Hope was sent out to radio and TV studios to steady the ship after the flurry of junior sackings and resignations in the run-up to conference.

With Mr Brown off to New York today, and protocol - but little else - against a shuffle during the Conservative conference, there may yet be at least another week of speculation to endure before the premier puts his ministers out of their misery.