The Week in Politics: Jockeying for position begins amid mumblings of a reshuffle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Downing Street slipped quietly into reshuffle mode this week, asking cabinet ministers and government whips for end-of-term reports on the performance of ministers, parliamentary aides and backbench MPs.

Downing Street slipped quietly into reshuffle mode this week, asking cabinet ministers and government whips for end-of-term reports on the performance of ministers, parliamentary aides and backbench MPs.

Some weeks may pass before the headmaster decides who is moved up, down and out. Since the military success of the Iraq war became clear, several of Tony Blair's allies have talked up the prospect of a sweeping reshuffle that would promote Blairites and those who remained loyal on Iraq.

Although Mr Blair will want his ministerial shake-up to look bold, that will not be easy because there is, as one Blair adviser said, "a logjam at the top of the Cabinet".

Before the war, Mr Blair might have considered moving Jack Straw from the Foreign Office. But his solid support in the conflict seems to have taken the idea off the agenda.

In theory, David Blunkett could be moved from the Home Office, but he has a big programme of reform to see through. While Mr Blair is frustrated by problems of crime and asylum, he is a big fan of Mr Blunkett and blames an over-cautious Home Office machine.

The Whitehall grapevine suggests that Alan Milburn might be ready for a move after four gruelling years as Health Secretary and a spell as a Health minister before that. He is sometimes frustrated that when he pulls levers, little happens on the ground.

Friends of Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, are eyeing up the Department of Health. But she may have to wait: Mr Milburn seems to want his plans for foundation hospitals safely on the statute book before moving on.

Mr Milburn has had a bruising battle with Gordon Brown over his proposals. The Chancellor gleefully reminded us in his Budget documents that he had watered down the Health Secretary's original plans for the new-style hospitals to borrow money outside NHS spending limits. Mr Milburn says public services must respond to consumer-driven society; Mr Brown argues that in health, the consumer cannot be sovereign.

The two men are jockeying for position in the long-term race to succeed Mr Blair. As one senior Whitehall official told me: "This is not about policy. It is all about personality." Mr Blair shares Mr Milburn's vision, and has become increasingly frustrated at what he regards as Mr Brown's obstruction of his public-sector reforms. He sees this as more important – in the short term – than the Chancellor's caution over the single currency. Indeed, the Prime Minister is said to have remarked recently: "Gordon is brilliant at macro policy, but not so good at the micro level when it comes to individual departments."

Could Mr Blair move his Chancellor? I hear that speculation Mr Brown might be offered the Foreign Office was taken so seriously by the Brown camp that it let Number 10 know the Chancellor would turn it down and go to the back benches.

I would be amazed if Mr Brown leaves the Treasury. In any case, Mr Blair needs the powerful backing that only Mr Brown could bring to a euro referendum.

There will be at least one vacancy: the unhappy Clare Short looks certain to leave the Department for International Development. The money is on Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary and former anti-apartheid campaigner, to succeed her.

Mr Blair is tempted to merge the posts of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland secretaries into one. But the plan may have to be put on hold while the province's Assembly and Executive are suspended.

Mr Blair believes cabinet ministers need at least three years to get to grips with their departments. As many took up their posts after the 2001 general election, the reshuffle may be less sweeping than some Blairites hope.

¿ The Government's line is that the diplomatic wounds of the Iraq war are starting to heal. But I hear that Mr Straw and Dominique de Villepin, his French counterpart, were still scratching away at each other at a dinner in Brussels also attended by Joschka Fischer, Germany's Foreign Minister.

It was meant to be a kiss and make up session, far from the madding media crowd. But it turned into a heated row between Mr Straw and M. de Villepin over Britain's claim that France wants the EU to become a "rival pole of power" to the US.

Although Mr Straw refers to M. de Villepin as "my good friend", the two men are like chalk and cheese. Mr Straw is a political street-fighter who still addresses shoppers in his Blackburn constituency from a soapbox. M. de Villepin is a poet and philosopher who evidently displayed at the dinner the rhetorical flourishes that won him praise at the UN Security Council. As Georges Clemenceau said: "Il est plus facile de faire la guerre que la paix."

¿ The author John O'Farrell may have been the guest speaker at Labour's annual fund-raising gala dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane on Wednesday. But the real star was Ian McCartney, the party's diminutive chairman.

Despite his broad Glaswegian accent, he had top businessmen rolling in the aisles after addressing them as "comrades". The dress code was lounge suits. Mr McCartney was the only one present wearing a dinner jacket.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

Comments