In the days before the last cabinet reshuffle, there were a number Conservative Party MPs absolutely convinced that they were in line for a promotion.
“Have you heard anything?” one texted me hopefully, chancing that someone in his phonebook would be able to confirm he had got the call up. Yet on reshuffle day, as the aspiring ministers watched their colleagues on television going into Downing Street for their chat with the Prime Minister, the phone never rang. Despite being so utterly sure that they were about to be put on the government payroll, each and every one of them had been overlooked.
How had they been so wrong? Which ill-informed journalist had provided them with duff information? Actually, it was the Tory whips.
In the weeks prior to that day of disappointment, while David Cameron was working out who to promote, Tory MPs were told to attend a one-on-one meeting with a whip. At the meeting, they were told that they should expect to be offered a job, that they were upmost in the Prime Minister’s thinking, that they should go back to the backbenches and prepare for high office.
So, eagerly anticipating their almost-promised promotion, the MPs behaved impeccably over the next few weeks. The Prime Minister was the greatest leader this country had ever had. The Chancellor is working miracles with the economy. “Have I told you about our long term economic plan?”
As one told me afterwards, they had been conned. Sensing the opportunity to use the hubris of hopeful backbenchers to instil some discipline, Downing Street dangled just enough under their noses to buy their good behaviour. It was a tactic that worked in the short term, but left the victims more than a bit miffed.
So, this time round, who is daring to dream?
Michael Gove has been fascinating to watch in recent weeks. First embroiling himself in an almighty row with Theresa May, then this week observing his former special adviser publicly attack the Prime Minister.
There is speculation about his restlessness. Surely the only job Gove, who outside of his education brief is also a published expert on Islamic extremism, would consider is Foreign Secretary. There was a suggestion earlier in the year that William Hague was coming to the end of his Westminster career and could make way for a long-term replacement before the election. Gove would be the chief candidate. Still, a change in such key government roles is unlikely with just eleven months until polling day.
A few months ago, Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps was the favourite for the chop. The Huffington Post‘s Mehdi Hasan claimed to have exclusively revealed that Shapps would be sacked. However, the Tories’ impressive ground operation in Newark, in which Shapps was instrumental, and the party’s resounding victory in that by-election means surely he will keep his job. Again, a change in this position would be a surprise.
Ken Clarke, minister without portfolio, may not be so safe. More than once this year Clarke invoked the wrath of Downing Street, going on television and the radio without the party’s permission and failing to keep to the party line. Cameron may well have decided he has had enough. A year out from the election might be a good time to promote a younger face to a senior role.
Another minister with a made up job title, Baroness Warsi, has been less than a team player in recent months. She has criticised the PM over his failure to promote enough women to the Cabinet and for the number of Old Etonians in senior government positions, also appearing less than enthusiastic at his robust response to the Trojan horse schools scandal. Getting rid of the Baroness would be a popular move among many in the party, though losing one of his only female and Asian faces may prove too much of a disincentive for Cameron to pull the trigger.
This all means a host of junior promotions are more likely than any major change around at the top. Cameron reportedly wants a woman in every government department, and indeed the names being pushed hardest for promotion are Liz Truss at the Department for Education and Esther McVey at the Department for Work and Pensions. Best bet for a non-female promotion is Matt Hancock, a trusted lieutenant of George Osborne is coming across as increasingly likeable.
The outsider being touted among Tory MPs over the last week is Priti Patel. From a cynical perspective Patel ticks plenty of boxes, but she also has a huge amount to offer in her own right as one of the most talented, hard-working, sound backbenchers around. It would also bring a rebel in from the cold. Sensible and a right-winger with a huge amount of potential, Patel could well be the one to watch.