This brief burst of English summer ought to be a glorious moment for David Cameron, as the British Prime Minister hosts an Olympics that has delivered a record haul of British medals, a buoyant public mood – and, for more than two weeks, newspaper front pages devoid of politics.
But Mr. Cameron barely smiles, his eyes seemingly fixed on the middle distance. When the crowds are gone and the flame extinguished, Mr. Cameron will be confronted with the political equivalent of the pentathlon.
As the Games have been taking place, his two-year-old coalition government has devolved into feuding and disarray. To stanch the decay, Mr. Cameron is under intense pressure to deliver the mother of all cabinet shuffles.
“A proper reshuffle is going to be vital to overcome the major weakness of his party, which is that it doesn’t have a way to win the next election,” says Tim Montgomerie, founder of the influential ConservativeHome website. “They have to do something. Otherwise this whole coalition is going to be more divisive and fractured.”
Last Thursday, the Prime Minister stepped into the fray in an effort to tone down the rumours of an epic shuffle (or reshuffle, as it is known in Britain), using an Olympic interview to deny strenuously that he planned to oust George Osborne, his Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr. Osborne’s most recent budget, widely regarded as an ill-executed shambles (half a dozen of its provisions had to be reversed or aborted soon after its release), has made him a key target for those wishing to wipe the coalition’s slate clean.
But even as Mr. Cameron spoke up in defence of his key minister, more deep fissures were opening.
On Monday, one of his best-known backbenchers, Louise Mensch, announced her resignation from politics – in part because she wanted to live with her New York-based husband, who manages the rock group Metallica, but also out of frustration with the lack of promotion opportunities for high-flying MPs.
That frustration had bubbled to the surface a few days earlier – along with anger at Mr. Cameron’s progressive stances on social issues – when a group of MPs announced their conclusion that only three male Tory backbenchers would ever become cabinet ministers, as a result of the coalition agreement that gives cabinet positions to Liberal Democrats and Mr. Cameron’s pledge to make a third of his cabinet female.
As his MPs were in full and public revolt, the Liberal Democrats were also making a dramatic split. On Tuesday, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem Leader, angrily declared that his party had abandoned its plans to reform the House of Lords and make the fully appointed upper house more democratic – one of their key demands in joining the coalition.
Mr. Cameron had tried to deliver that promise with a Lords-reform bill that was scuppered last month by his own rebelling backbenchers. A furious Mr. Clegg announced that the coalition agreement is no longer in force and that his party would side with opposition Labour to reject key Tory bills.
A shuffle, then, seems like Mr. Cameron’s only escape path – especially since he needs to clear away unpopular ministers such as Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who became implicated in the tabloid-and-TV scandal surrounding media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
But seasoned observers caution that the shuffle could be less dramatic than anticipated, because Mr. Cameron has so little leeway. Many of his ministers hated by the public, such as Mr. Osborne, are popular with right-wing backbenchers.
Many hated by backbenchers – such as left-leaning Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke – are key to Mr. Cameron’s re-election hopes. And he has no power to shuffle Liberal Democrat ministers, about a third of the slate.
“All the ingredients are in place for a reshuffle,” says Tony Travers of the London School of Economics. “All the conditions – the government’s been unpopular for getting on six months, there’s a backbench revolt – are in place. But then you ask what the reshuffle would do to the coalition’s relations, and it becomes less compelling.”
Insiders say the key moves will be to appoint a new party chairman – a public figure who can lead the Tories to a majority in the 2015 election – and to open up perhaps 10 positions, however minor, for a few backbenchers. But the biggest names will almost certainly stay in place – and the feuding, as public as ever, will continue.