The coming reshuffle: In Whitehall they're beginning to murmur: 'Dead M an Walking'

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The Independent Online
THE scene is Whitehall. A murmur rises through the grimy corridors and waiting rooms, just audible above the traffic noise outside. The murmur is passed from secretary to deputy secretary, from messenger to private office. And the murmur goes: ''Dead Man Walking''. In the minister's office, the white-faced minister, hearing it clearly, fiddles at his tie-knot and adjusts his jaw before stepping outside. But all the bravado in the world can't hide the fact that, politically speaking, the ministeris dead.

I exaggerate, of course. But the political season is moving towards reshuffle time and already government is awash with speculation about who is out, who down, and who in.

This is a grisly spectacle, one of the few forms of public execution (and, for sensitive ministers, public torture) still sanctioned by a liberal state. But it is probably necessary to our system: prime ministers must be good butchers of their colleagues. And now, quite soon, it is Tony Blair's turn to demonstrate how he will cope.

After weekend stories that the Paymaster General, Geoffrey Robinson, was to be moved soon from the Treasury, Mr Blair's press secretary - displaying the gift for modest understatement for which he is becoming famous - described the reports as ''The junk food of political journalism'', adding, for those who hadn't caught his drift, ''All reshuffle stories are crap.'' Well, fine. But if there is no reshuffle in the spring, it will merely because it is coming in summer instead.

Of recent prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher was a self-confessed bad butcher. She cut away the wets, though not speedily, during her early years. Later on, though, she was too slow and insufficiently ruthless - despite her reputation. She was sentimental about supposed ideological supporters, even when they were bad ministers, and worried about how families would take the news.

When John Major arrived, much was made of a new dispensation, in which there would be little reshuffling, so that ministers had two, three or four years of guaranteed office in which to master their departments and show what they could do. That, too, failed as a strategy. Weak ministers were left too long. The resignations and firings were often forced on Major - as with David Mellor - or came suddenly and bitterly, as with Norman Lamont. In general, his reshuffles probably weakened rather than strengthened the prime minister.

Tony Blair will have learned from those years. In opposition, he was always an intent observer of political decline. Now, he has to prune away the poorer performers and use new ministerial hirings to sharpen the country's perception of what his government is all about. Reshuffles are moments of truth. Up to a point, they do for prime ministers what budgets do for chancellors.

But whenever it comes, my predictions are that Blair will be a tough and unsentimental reshuffler; and that his changes will not please the press.

It would be so easy, wouldn't it, to conjure a great whoosh of happy headlines by, for instance, dropping the Lord Chancellor and his wallpaper bill; or booting out Peter Mandelson from the Dome project and sending him to the Siberia of a ''proper job'' working for John Prescott; or even firing the Foreign Secretary, whose personal life and spiky public image have not endeared him to Middle Britain.

Pandering to the prejudices of hacks would, however, be a sign of weakness. Blair knows, from the Conservative experience, how the scent of blood merely encourages the journalistic frenzy. His focus, instead, has been relentlessly on performance: how well does X or Y do the actual job? No administration as media-obsessed as this one can have enjoyed the publicity created by some of the less popular ministers. But they won't be sacked because of it.

Nor will there be a grand political gesture. The obvious one would be to persuade Robin Cook to leave the gilded corridors of the Foreign Office and grab the constitutional reform agenda, becoming super-minister for devolution, rights, reform of the

Lords and Commons and European political reform. This would give an essential boost to a key part of the Government's programme that has come to seem diffuse, unloved and haphazard. Cook is a genuine intellectual enthusiast for reform, and on the radical wing of the party. Giving him an overlord role, like John Prescott's, would be an imaginative stroke.

It is also, however, going to remain a columnist's fantasy. Like Derry Irvine, Gordon Brown and Jack Straw, Cook is judged to have performed very well by Number Ten. The diplomatic messages from other European capitals, and from around the world, are very different in tone from the press complaints about an arrogant and clumsy amateur: his peers regard him as an excellent negotiator with a fine command of detail. Those of us who think that Cook has it in him to be more than that will have to wait.

So what will the reshuffle be like when it finally comes? Expect quite a lot of lesser heads to roll. Blair needs to demonstrate that he is a tough leader. A year into the first Labour administration for ages, he will remove all those people who came into government by virtue of their shadow cabinet vote and who have failed to shine since. David Clark and Gavin Strang are two decent, hardworking cabinet ministers who are probably for the chop on that basis; but so are many more junior people.

The tougher questions are about the future of Frank Dobson at health and Harriet Harman at social security. Dobson will have to deliver on his 100,000 cut in waiting lists to survive. Harman, meanwhile, has powerful enemies in Downing Street, and not only because of the serious mistake in cutting lone parents' allowances and in opening the debate on disability payments. But she has had Gordon Brown as a powerful political protector - because, say cynics, she allows him to run her department as a

proxy of the Treasury. If so, Brown has done her no great favours since her survival would be seen in the party as a victory for the Brownites and therefore, perhaps, a sign of prime ministerial weakness.

What, finally, of the most media-magnetic personality of them all, Peter Mandelson? He is judged to be ready for promotion but there is the huge problem of the Dome. Though some of the project's creative people think it is being badly damaged by association with him, to move Mandelson away from it now would be some kind of concession of failure. I don't think either Mandelson or Blair would go for that.

He could of course take over either the culture department, headed by Chris Smith, or the cabinet office and machinery of government job now done by David Clark, and keep the Dome too. And given the power-play inside New Labour, any reshuffle which had nothing to say about Mandelson would be very odd indeed.

The cabinet office job would be the shrewder move, since the relationship between Number Ten and the rest of Whitehall is far from perfect - and a proposal for reworking it was one of the ideas in Mandelson's pre-election book. Further, that personal strengthening of the Blair's grip is really what this first reshuffle will be all about. He must cut to reshape, and destroy careers to strengthen his project. It will be a grisly rite of passage but after it, Britain will have just a little less Tony, and a little more Prime Minister.