Mr Major passed the minimum virility test set by many colleagues by sacking John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, in a reconstruction which tilted the Cabinet perceptibly, if modestly, to the right and saw the departure of Lord Wakeham, John MacGregor, and Peter Brooke.
In a break with precedent, Mr Major parted with his four colleagues in secrecy on Tuesday night, sparing them the humiliation of leaving Downing Street in full view of massed television crews. But that did not stop Mr Patten showing his anger and disappointment with the tersest of one-paragraph letters that scarcely observed the normal niceties.
In one of the three most notable switches, Gillian Shephard, a common-sense former schools inspector, was promoted from Agriculture to replace Mr Patten. She is expected to make a new start in the dispute with teachers over testing, and to bed down rather than extend the reforms of the past six turbulent years. In the second, Michael Portillo was switched to the small but still key economic ministry of Employment, where he will have ample opportunity to fight for his right- wing views on Europe, benefits, and training. The move was welcomed by neo-Thatcherites and one MP close to the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury said: 'This is much better than transport or national heritage. Michael will be still at the centre of things.'
And in the third, David Hunt, replaced by Mr Portillo, was initially disappointed when Mr Major asked him to run the Office of Public Service and Science vacated by William Waldegrave, who goes to Agriculture. A welter of late advice to Mr Major, including that of Sir Norman Fowler, the outgoing chairman, turned Mr Major against offering the chairmanship to Mr Hunt. Downing Street went out of its way to stress he would inherit the chairmanship of key Cabinet committees from Lord Wakeham and play a central role in co- ordinating policy, acting as Mr Major's personal 'enforcer' and 'progress chaser' in Whitehall. But No 10 finally conceded last night that Tony Newton, who stays as Leader of the Commons, and not Mr Hunt, would inherit the most influential of the Wakeham committees, that covering home and social affairs.
Besides Mr Hanley, a popular minister with roots on the party's left but untested in front line national campaigning, Mr Major augmented the Cabinet's Eurosceptic wing by bringing his fellow Defence Minister, Jonathan Aitken, into the Cabinet as Chief Secretary. Brian Mawhinney, a right of centre pragmatist, becomes Secretary of State for Transport and Stephen Dorrell, a potential Tory leadership contender from the party's left, gets his first Cabinet department, National Heritage.
And in one of the more remarkable appointments Mr Major replaced his parliamentary private secretary, Graham Bright, with the little-known John Ward, 69-year old MP for Poole.
In a quietly brutal shake-up of Government management in the House of Lords - criticised for the mauling peers have given to key measures such as the two law and order Bills - Lord Wakeham was replaced as Leader by Viscount Cranborne, heir to Lord Salisbury and the latest in the ancient line of political Cecils. Lord Strathclyde is the new chief whip.
At the same time the Home Office's image as the most right-wing since the Second World War was dramatically reinforced by the dismissal of Peter Lloyd, the one left of centre minister in the department, and the arrival of Baroness Blatch, replacing Earl Ferrers, and even more significantly, the Thatcherite Michael Forsyth.
Mr Hanley will have to galvanise the Tory grassroots' response to Tony Blair, who will be crowned as Labour leader today, almost certainly with John Prescott as his deputy. The appointment of a clearly delighted Mr Hanley will be reinforced by a group of deputies including the novelist Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards and chief of staff during Lord Tebbit's tenure at Central Office.
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