Media fever gives no clue to reshuffle: Speculation on Cabinet changes has an undistinguished history

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Indy Politics
FEVERED MEDIA speculation about an impending ministerial reshuffle descended into farce yesterday with political reporters feeding on their own speculation about timing and content - with no hard fact whatsoever drawn from the only person who knew the answers, John Major.

In an excited broadcast on News at Ten on Tuesday night, Michael Brunson, ITN's political editor, reported that he had been wrong to rule out an imminent reshuffle in an earlier bulletin - he had just been told by a senior source that the changes were expected this weekend.

Mr Brunson performed another U-turn yesterday when he said that the reshuffle was not scheduled for this weekend after all. Given that the Prime Minister's weekend programme includes visits to France and Liverpool, he would not have had much time to spare for sacking and appointing ministers.

But there is a long and undistinguished tradition of shuffle fever. In June 1985, the sport plumbed new depths when Charles Douglas-Home, editor of the Times, called his political staff at the Commons to dictate the detail of a reshuffle planned by Margaret Thatcher.

The information became a front-page story under the headline: 'Thatcher expected to dismiss two in Cabinet reshuffle.'

The report said: 'The Prime Minister is believed to be planning an important reconstruction of the Cabinet, involving a promotion for Mr Peter Walker and the dismissal of at least two senior ministers.'

In fact Mr Walker stayed at Energy and Michael Jopling stayed at Agriculture, though Peter Rees was replaced by John MacGregor - not John Moore, as predicted. A junior minister later said he had been the source of the report; it was speculation, not inside knowledge. The minister was Alan Clark, of Matrix Churchill fame.

But the tradition has been maintained. Recent speculation about Mr Hurd's imminent departure from the Foreign Office bears a similar, shoddy hallmark. Mr Hurd will remain as Foreign Secretary in the next shuffle, whenever that might be.

Other elements of shuffle speculation are evidently inspired by 'friends' and supporters of ambitious ministers.

Reports in the Daily Mail and the Sun, said 'friends' of Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, were effectively blackmailing John Major by suggesting that 'he knows where the bodies are buried from the mistakes made leading up to the election and the Exchange Rate Mechanism fiasco'. It has also been suggested Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, and Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Employment, would like to move to Education - an evident vote of confidence in John Patten, the incumbent.

One prerogative that prime ministers guard with jealous ferocity is the power to decide when and how to shuffle.

Baroness Thatcher softened up targeted ministers with leaks. Mr Major evidently deplored that behaviour. He said this week: 'When and if I shuffle my Cabinet, I hope the first that anyone will hear about it, is the day on which it begins.' On that basis, any date up to 7 June - when the Commons returns - can be discounted.

A Newsnight poll of 87 Tory MPs showed 47 per cent favoured Norman Lamont staying as Chancellor. If he was moved, only 7 per cent favoured replacing him with Kenneth Clarke (Home Secretary), 11 per cent with Michael Howard (Environment) and 18 per cent with John MacGregor (Transport).

Leading article, page 27

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