Will Fox return to the cabinet?

Will Fox return to the cabinet?

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How long will Cameron keep him on the backbenches?

David Blunkett, Peter Mandelson (twice), Michael Heseltine, Anthony Eden, Harold Wilson and Winston Churchill all did it. They are among the few to return to the cabinet after having previously resigned for something other than electoral defeat. After Fox’s departure this week, the question is whether he’ll buck the odds and join the select band.

It is not likely to be an easy route. After nearly 18 months in office, Cameron has made no optional reshuffles and when events have forced him to change the line-up, he has made only the most minimal movement. As the best period for a reshuffle is around the summer recess, with most of the year’s legislation through and giving ministers maximum time to get to grips with their briefs before parliament resumes, it’s reasonable to assume that the PM isn’t planning anything major before next Summer, which if it happens may be the only significant shift of personnel all parliament.

A lack of ministerial continuity impedes the delivery of policy but the existence of the coalition is a bigger reason not to reshuffle much this time. Members of both parties, as well as outside observers, will be watching closely to see who has won and who’s lost out in any reshuffle. If portfolios end up being moved from a Lib Dem to a Tory or vice versa there will inevitably be complaints that their side has been unfairly treated, with any number of pet theories to explain why. All in all, best not to any more than is necessary.

Gus O’Donnell’s report seems likely to state that Fox broke the ministerial code but didn’t gain financially. If so, that’s not necessarily a career-ending position. An apology and a period of penance will suffice as punishment. But to be eligible does not mean the call will come.

For one thing, there’s new talent that will be jostling for a place at the top table. Government and opposition demand different skills and the PM may prefer to bring through some from the second rank who’ve taken to government most naturally, especially if the opportunities to do so are few and far between.

On the other hand, Fox is still seen by some a leader of the Tory right and as such, a political heavyweight to be kept within the Big Tent. I’m not convinced the reality matches the received wisdom. Fox’s foreign policy stance may be Atlanticist but the cuts he accepted at Defence and his time as Shadow Health Secretary do not mark him down as particularly hardline. Besides, the kind of factional balancing implied by this sort of thinking is much less necessary after a long spell in opposition and in the constraining situation of a coalition government.

Fox is only 50, which does give him plenty of time to return, especially if the Conservatives win an outright majority after the next election, freeing up five cabinet places from the Lib Dems. Before then, his best chance may ironically be that very lack of movement imposed by the dynamics of coalition. As a backbencher with cabinet experience, he’s an option to parachute straight in should another Tory minister resign, so avoiding a knock-on reshuffle. Even so, I wouldn’t give him more than about one chance in five of a comeback before the election.

David Herdson

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