The modern-day Sun King and his ambitious court

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The Independent Online

Europe, the euro, Iraq and helping Africa may be on the lips of every minister these days, but make no mistake about it: what's on their minds is the coming reshuffle due early next month.

This curious ritual is one of the oddities, and diversions, of the British political system. Other countries have their nights of the long knives - just look at what President George Bush did with his whole economic team earlier this year - but none have this regular auto da fe of government servants.

You know on a newspaper when a rearrangement of the deck chairs is in the offing by the number of officials ringing up to offer an article from their minister. If the frequency of offerings this time is anything to go by, ministers are fearful of an extensive cull. There is no day without at least one article suggestion and no subject, be it gay rights, hospital waiting lists or college exams, that isn't on offer from a member of the government anxious to raise his or her profile and preserve their tenure.

But then what else is one to make of the procession of ministers pushing forward to declare, in the rash of reconstructions of the war being published, that they were ready to resign with the Prime Minister had the Commons vote on invasion gone against him? There was never the faintest chance that it would have, of course. And Tony Blair's own reiteration of his fears is little more than an actor's desire to make his role appear more dangerous and therefore more romantic. But on they come, the Blunketts and the Straws, to declare with one voice that, yes, they were ready to fall on their swords if the battle had been lost.

And if this makes Westminster sound more like the court of Le Roi Soleil than a modern European government, that's because it is. Few administrations since the 18th century have used patronage so directly and so plentifully to reward those courtiers who sing the praises of New Labour and its chief and punish those who do not. With 412 Members of Parliament and about 100 government positions to feed them, you can see the purpose of regular reshuffles, and the chatter that goes with them.

In modern British politics, with its huge majorities, there is no role for backbenchers. The media aren't interested in you, the electorate doesn't rate your job and even the Select Committees are in the hands of the Government. Just as in Versailles, your only route to fortune is through government preferment. No wonder the talk is all of "who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out". Politicians may complain that the press is always obsessed with personality politics, but that's only a reflection of what politicians talk about.

Just at the moment, the gossip is concentrated in a limited few Cabinet ministers and a rather more extensive reshuffle lower down the food chain. Alistair Darling: not shining in Transport and close to the Chancellor, so he's on the danger list. Geoff Hoon: not a good war and made a bosh of telling the US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that we might have to back out of it at the last minute. So he could be for the chop. Alan Milburn: all right at Health but Patricia Hewitt looks a bit marginalised at the Department of Trade. She should get a leg up. A loyal female figure at the centre of the Cabinet would make sense.

On the outside eager to get in, or rather get back in, are Stephen Byers, vigorously making speeches to aid his rehabilitation, and Peter Mandelson, his shares well down after his attacks on Gordon Brown. Not that he said the wrong thing, just that he said it at the wrong time, like a family "friend" intervening to take sides in a marital quarrel just as the spouses were making up.

And Straw, who has become something of the Polonius of Hamlet's court (or would Parolles in All's Well that Ends Well be more apt): does his volubility suggest that he feels vulnerable? He should do. The more that comes out about the run-up to the war, the more disastrous the second UN resolution appears. It should never have been tried. Blair himself might have been responsible, but it is not the King but his ministers who take the rap. Straw now looks a liability.

It's an impossible job, of course. For Blair likes to be his own Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, as do all Prime Ministers once they get a taste for the world stage. He needs in the Foreign Office someone he can play off and with, not one that dogs his heels and gets entangled in his ankles.

That is Blair's key problem this time round, that and the future of his Chancellor. On the latter there is little he can, or wants to, do before an election. It's like the Kaiser and Bismarck. Eventually the pilot must be dropped, but not at this stage of the game. A clever tactician - and Blair is clever when he needs to be - would use the reshuffle to ease out Gordon Brown's friends and confine the Chancellor with loyalist junior appointments. But he'll avoid a confrontation, for all the closet advice urging him to action.

On the foreign secretaryship, however, the Prime Minister should act. If he is to regain his standing in Europe and recalibrate his relationship with Washington, he needs an operator whom he can trust, an ally who is seen to be pro-European and to have his ear. He may be in the dog house now, but I'd call in Peter Mandelson. It would scare half the Cabinet to death and quite possibly drive Brown mad.