It was the then Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe who said of Harold Macmillan’s famously brutal 1962 reshuffle that “greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”.
Given the real-time role played by twitterdom today – the Prime Ministerial tweets that announced each change and the attendant commentary – it’s sad that no one has come up with anything as good to describe David Cameron’s Cabinet reconstruction almost exactly 52 years later.
For from the moment soon after 8am that Michael Gove drove up to No 10 – a mere 12 hours after the announcement that William Hague would no longer be Foreign Secretary – and then left more discreetly by another door, it was clear that this was going to be a lot bigger than expected.
But how big historically? In his “night of the long knives” Macmillan sacked six Cabinet ministers, including Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd, the colleague he most wanted to shed. As the late Alan Clark would write, SuperMac – as he no longer seemed to be – “decided to drown Lloyd’s cries of protests by committing a general massacre”.
But despite comparisons with July 1962 – including by disgruntled Tory MPs – only three actual Cabinet members have lost their jobs, and one of them, Gove, has stayed in government as Chief Whip,
Secondly, Cameron is not immediately threatened, unlike the 68-year-old Macmillan who explained that “we need a new team of younger men” – apart from himself of course. Note the “men”.
There was no Nicky Morgan or pink-jacketed Liz Truss to walk into Downing street for their big promotions; no Esther McVey to pirouette for the cameras after hearing she would be attending Cabinet as a non-member.
A closer comparison may be Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 reshuffle, which saw two Cabinet ministers sacked and two leaving voluntarily. Like William Hague, Geoffrey Howe went from the Foreign Office to be Leader of the Commons, though under semi-public protest. A main reason for Thatcher’s own resignation the following year – after a decade in office – would be the departure of a deeply discontented Howe. Hague, by contrast seems content; whether the same can be said for Gove is highly debatable.
Gove demoted, one view is that Theresa May’s future leadership candidacy has been strengthened. Yet no Conservative in her job has ever become Prime Minister. Tory history is littered with ex-Home Secretary PMs-who-never-were: R A Butler (probably given the job by Macmillan in 1957 for that very reason), Douglas Hurd, Ken Clarke...
Ah, Ken Clarke. Other ministers of Cabinet ability lost their jobs to Cameron’s knife, Damian Green and David Willets among them. But for all the excitement in the media-political complex, few, any more than their replacements, are well known.
Clarke is, at least to older voters. Since this is the first Tory government since 1972 not to include him, his departure is quite a moment.
After typical sideswipes at Euroscepticism and “lightweight PR people who want us to utter slogans all the time”, Clarke remarked on the BBC Today programme that ”the major parties” would recover their ability to attract people “to bother to vote for them” by “treating the nation in a grown-up way and addressing political issues in straightforward language and giving their honest opinions”.
Hard to hope for in an election relentlessly pitting “hardworking people” and “the long-term economic plan” against “one nation Labour” and “the cost of living crisis”.
But if he’s right, he will, at 74, have proved to be among the most modern of politicians.