David Cameron has put his ministers on alert for a reshuffle on Monday amid suggestions that the shake-up of the Conservative team could be bigger than previously expected.
Mr Cameron has always been a cautious shuffler of his ministerial pack and has not changed personnel in the “great offices of state” since the 2010 election – with only limited changes in other big cabinet jobs.
But Whitehall officials now speak of a “proper reshuffle” next week as the UK prime minister moves to promote younger faces – particularly women – to the cabinet, while clearing out some of the older generation.
“We were told this week that it was on Monday, but I wouldn’t put it past Downing Street to change their mind,” said one minister.
Sir George Young, the veteran chief whip, is widely expected to leave frontline politics, as is Ken Clarke, the minister without portfolio, and Andrew Lansley, leader of the Commons. Esther McVey and Nicky Morgan are among the female ministers expected to win promotion.
Speculation is rife that Greg Hands, deputy chief whip and a close ally of George Osborne, the chancellor, will replace Sir George as chief whip – with the key role of party management.
As with all reshuffles, Tory MPs will study the changes for evidence of Mr Osborne extending his grip over the party. Mr Hands’ promotion would be seen as a strong expression of the chancellor’s influence.
A test of Mr Osborne’s influence will be whether he finally succeeds in his wish to see Iain Duncan Smith moved out of the Department for Work and Pensions, where he has been criticised for failing to get a grip on his universal credit policy.
The Treasury is suspicious of Mr Duncan Smith’s ability to implement the policy and has so far refused to sign off funding for the strategic plan for universal credit stretching into the next parliament.
Mr Duncan Smith told MPs this week that he expected the sign-off “soon”, but speculation gripped Westminster on Friday that the task of delivering the benefit reform might fall to a different secretary of state.
The rumour mill was stirred by a conversation supposedly overheard on a train and relayed by the Guido Fawkes website. In it, a female staffer said confidently that Mr Duncan Smith was about to be replaced by Ms McVey, employment minister.
While Ms McVey is tipped for promotion to the cabinet, Mr Duncan Smith’s allies said he had no intention of going anywhere. One ally said he had always been clear that the reason he had joined the government and taken the DWP position was to deliver welfare reforms – “one of the most popular things the government is doing”.
During the Tory “Summer Ball”– an invitation-only fundraiser held at London’s exclusive Hurlingham Club last week – Mr Cameron told guests that Mr Duncan Smith was one of the three key figures in the cabinet, alongside Mr Osborne and Theresa May, the home secretary.
The last time Mr Cameron attempted serious surgery on his cabinet, the prime minister was forced to abandon plans to move Mr Duncan Smith after he refused to go to another department.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is expected to conduct a limited reshuffle on the same day, with party sources playing down speculation that Ed Davey, energy secretary, might be replaced by Jo Swinson, one of the few senior women in Mr Clegg’s team.
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