UK Prime Minister May be Forced into Cabinet Reshuffle
Associate Editor, CNBC
The UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, is coming under increasing pressure to reshuffle his cabinet just days after returning to work from a two-week break.
Rumors of a summer cabinet reshuffle have been rife for some time within Westminster, with Conservative backbenchers first calling on Cameron to change his team asearly as February this year.
They then resurfaced during April but seemed to die down again only to return this week.
The latest rumor to have surfaced is that secretary of state for culture media and sport, Jeremy Hunt, could replace Andrew Lansley at the Department of Health.
CNBC.com has learned that Hunt has cancelled a string of meetings in the last month with external organisations that his department works with, suggesting he has been scaling down his workload in anticipation of his departure despite his publicly stated desire to stay within his current role.
Sources have suggested to CNBC.com that Hunt could be moved to the Department of Health in the summer as part of a plan to reassure the public over the government’s commitment to the National Health Service (NHS).
Hunt is held in high regard within the Conservative Party, with one source even tipping him as a potential future leader, arguing that Hunt had been careful not to align himself with any particular faction within the party and had so far managed not to “blot his copy book.” They also suggested Hunt was a far more media friendly than the current health secretary.
Another source told CNBC.com that although backbench MP Stephen Dorrell, who chairs the health select committee “knew the NHS backwards” he was a very similar character to Andrew Lansley and what the department now needed was “more of a salesman” suggesting that Hunt could be a possibility.
Dorrell, who ran the Department of Health under the last Conservative government has already ruled himself out, telling the BBC on Thursday that he had been elected to chair the Health Select Committee for the life of the current parliament. However, he refused to rule himself out completely.
Lansley has found himself increasingly isolated as a result of his proposed NHS reforms, with the government having had to accept that the majority of the public do not trust them and the prime minister putting himself at the centre of the campaign to win public support for the reforms.
That campaign has so far been unsuccessful with a recent opinion poll for political website politicshome.com revealing the “failure of David Cameron to truly detoxify his party on healthcare.”
The poll showed a large plurality with 45 percent to 22 percent believing that “any changes the Conservatives make to the NHS will be motivated by a desire to help business rather than patients.”
Staggeringly even 16 percent of those who voted for the party at the last election believe this is true.
The row over the reforms has been particularly sensitive for Cameron who made continued assurances over the future of the NHS ahead of, and during, last year’s general election campaign.
As far backl as his speech to the Conservative Party conference of 2006, Cameron said while former Prime Minister Tony Blair had once summed up his priorities in three words - Education, Education, Education – he could do it in three letters “N-H-S”.
Yet on Monday Cameron found himself having to promise never to privatize the health service and was criticized by Labour leader Ed Miliband for being “the only prime minister in history to set out five pledges to protect the NHS from his own policies.”
Moreover, the Conservative party has trailed Labour in opinion polls for months with the latest YouGov poll for the Sun Newspaper last week pointing to a six point lead for Labour over the Tories.
However, one source told CNBC.com the prime minister would be reluctant to move his health secretary for two reasons. The first being that he has a close personal relationship with Lansley having worked for him as a researcher back in the 1990s. The second, more hard nosed, reason for the prime minister’s reluctance to move his health secretary is his determination not to let the press bully him into making changes to his cabinet as he believes former Prime Minister Tony Blair was in the early years of his premiership.
While he may not want to bow to pressure from the press - and it is growing, Frazer Nelson, the editor of the Spectator, the prominent centre right magazine, recently referred to Cameron’s team as a cabinet of the undead– he may not be able to ignore his backbench MPs for much longer.
Conservative backbench MPs on the right of the party have been clamouring for a reshuffle since February.
They were particularly unhappy with the inclusion of Ken Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer during the last Conservative government, in the Cabinet as Justice Secretary. The government’s U-turn on Wednesday over shorter prison sentences for criminals only helped to stoke backbench fervour to oust Clarke.
In an act of open rebellion during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday Conservative backbench MP for Kettering, Phillip Hollobone, asked Cameron why if magistrates retired at the age of 70, should the Justice Secretary, who is in effect their boss (aged 71), not be retired as well.
Caroline Spellman is also on the Conservative backbenchers' hit list after the government was forced into an embarrassing turnaround over the privatization of the Forestry Commission earlier this year.
Another is Baroness Warsi, Conservative co-chairman and Britain’s first female Muslim cabinet minister who caused controversy earlier this year by suggesting Islamophobia had "passed the dinner-table test" and was increasingly considered acceptable in British society.
Then there are the current police investigations of both the energy secretary Chris Huhne, over allegations that he asked his ex-wife to take 3 penalty points on her driving licence for a speeding offense committed in 2003 in Essex, and former first secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, over £56,000 worth of false parliamentary expenses claimed for rent and other housing costs between 2006 and 2009, which were paid to his long-term partner James Lundie.
Both are Liberal Democrats, causing the prime minister the headache of maintaining balance within his government between his own ministers and those from his coalition partner.
In the case of Huhne, should Essex police find enough evidence to charge the energy secretary he will be forced to resign immediately. The resignation could be used as an excuse for a wider cabinet reshuffle.
But equally, sources have told CNBC.com that Cameron and his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, could simply choose a replacement for Huhne from within the existing ranks of the Liberal Democrats. One source suggested Ed Davey, currently a junior minster at the department for business, innovation and skills (BIS) could be a potential contender for the role.
As for Laws, an early return to the Cabinet - as the prime minister said he favoured back in November last year - now looks remote at best after he was forced to apologize to the House of Commons for his actions and the subsequent police investigation that has been triggered by the findings of the Parliamentary Standards Committee.
Then there is business secretary Vince Cable, who has been largely sidelined within his own department, having had the responsibility for deciding whether Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation could press ahead with its proposed takeover of BSkyB taken away from him, after he made comments suggesting he had a “nuclear option” which could bring the government down and that he had “declared war” on Murdoch.
Responsibility for that decision was passed to the culture secretary rather than to another minister within BIS.