The Week In Westminster: Did Blair really want a cabal of festering malcontents?

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The Independent Online
THE MUCH-vaunted Cabinet reshuffle, which raised so much expectation and press speculation during the past six weeks, turned out to be a non- event. But there is a certain smugness in this column which predicted, on 12 June, "it all looks likely to mean no change in the Cabinet with talk of reshuffle this summer confined to junior ranks".

It may be that the Prime Minister wanted to make Cabinet changes, but shied at the last minute because of the cacophony of noise made by the likes of Frank Dobson and Mo Mowlam who took to the airwaves to plead to stay in their jobs. Or maybe Mr Blair had studied past reshuffles, by his predecessors, and saw that invariably a build up of disgruntled ex-Cabinet Ministers on the back-benches provided the focus for trouble- makers and general discontent.

Another explanation offered for Mr Blair's refusal to sack Cabinet Ministers was that he is simply not a good butcher. Harold Macmillan, during his "Night of the Long Knives" reshuffle in 1962, dismissed one-third of the cabinet involving tense meetings with aggrieved colleagues. One of the casualties, Lord Kilmuir, told Mr Macmillan "a cook would have been given more notice of his dismissal".

"Ah," mused Macmillan. "But good cooks are hard to find."

Even Mr Macmillan was an old softie compared to the brutality of the former Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, who summoned a minister to Downing Street during one re-shuffle. "What can I do for you, Prime Minister?" "I want your job," grunted Attlee. "But why Prime Minister?" "Afraid you're not up to it." The interview ended abruptly.

Baroness Castle records her own dismissal by Jim Callaghan after he succeeded Harold Wilson as Prime Minister. Callaghan told Lady Castle that Wilson said the worst thing about being Prime Minister would be Question Time. "It isn't, it's this," he said before demanding her resignation. "Harold thought that too," Lady Castle replied sweetly before adding: "That's why he didn't do it."

LEFT WING Labour MPs, led by Brian Sedgemoor (Hackney South & Shoreditch), were delighted at the promotion of Chris Mullin (Sunderland South) to junior minister at the Dept of Environment, Transport and the Regions. Mr Mullin has waited 16 years on the back-benches before the call came on his pager and he has finally made the transition from editor of Tribune to political respectability with his principles intact.

Originally loathed by the Tories for his dogged persistence on behalf of the "Birmingham Six", he has proved that it is still possible to become a minister on the basis of being a true parliamentarian rather than a party apparachik.

Mr Mullin looked embarrassed but delighted as he walked up to 10 Downing Street. "It's a funny old world" he remarked, quoting Baroness Thatcher, before entering.

His promotion to John Prescott's department will make Mr Prescott's alleged disappointment at losing four of his ministers easier to bear and he will be a reliable soulmate for the much put-upon Deputy Prime Minister. But he could also turn out to be one of the stars of the Government. Given his first taste of real responsibility, as chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, he has proved to be an able administrator winning complimentary plaudits from Tories and Liberal Democrats.

IT WAS a good week for Kinnockites with well-deserved promotions for Charles Clarke (Norwich South) to Minister of State at the Home Office and Patricia Hewitt (Leicester West) to Minister of State at the Dept of Trade & Industry heading the class of 1997.

Both were behind the scenes movers and shakers in Neil Kinnock's private office for many of the long years of opposition. Aged 49 and 50 respectively, they already have a depth of political experience greater than most of their contemporaries.

For Mr Clarke, the transition from Marxist student radical - once further to the left of Tony Benn - to Blairite moderate is now complete.

A former president of the National Union of Students he was once accused by Tories of "peddling the Moscow line" during a fraternal student visit to Bucharest. He spent a year in Cuba organising a World Youth Festival, which was attended by Peter Mandelson.

Mr Clarke's election to parliament two years ago was almost an accident, because he was selected only when the previous MP (John Garrett) was forced through ill-health to stand down at the last minute.

Ms Hewitt is abrasive, but she is one of the cleverest people in the Labour party and was responsible for bringing the famed Excalibur rapid response computer system to Labour campaigning. She has been at the top of every left libertarian group for 25 years and made her mark before entering parliament as the general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty).

These two are bound to feature in the cabinet should Labour win a second term and both are even worth an outside bet on getting to the top table before the general election.

A SURPRISE party to celebrate John Major's 20th anniversary as MP for Huntingdon was nearly ruined when a party hack accidentally let slip that William Hague was to be the mystery guest.

But the day was saved when Mr Major's best buddy, the former US President George Bush accompanied by his wife Barbara, made an unannounced visit to the party.

Mr Bush told the gathering how, despite being well into his 70s, he had recently made a successful parachute jump. Mrs Bush had responded by saying "it was the best fall since the 1992 presidential election", when her husband was soundly beaten by Bill Clinton.