Reshuffle will test John Major's mettle: Colin Brown speculates on the top-level changes the Prime Minister may make in an attempt to quell the right wing

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The Independent Online
THE CABINET reshuffle will be a test of John Major's strength against the right-wing troublemakers in his party. Some Tory MPs are asking whether he has the guts to sack some of the 'bastards' from the Cabinet.

Mr Major - who vented his anger against the anti-Maastricht ministers, dubbing them 'bastards' in an unguarded moment - never identified who he had in mind. But most colleagues assume he was talking about Peter Lilley, Michael Portillo and John Redwood.

Colleagues believe they have earned the title: Mr Lilley took a holiday during the European election campaign; Mr Portillo, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, broke the Government's line of neutrality on the single currency by making it clear he was against it; Mr Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, strongly supported the Prime Minister's vision of a 'multi-speed' European Union, but he upset Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, by joining the calls for a cut in taxes immediately the campaign was over. They are unlikely to be shown the door immediately, although Mr Major's allies want him to put them on notice.

The big jobs in the Cabinet are not likely to be changed: Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor, and Michael Howard, Home Secretary, are staying put. But the 'wimp factor' is important for Mr Major. Ministerial colleagues believe the time has come to take the 'bastards' down a peg. 'Major has got to put some stick about. Portillo should be called in and told that Downing Street will be briefing (that) he has been carpeted. He should be told to keep his nose clean, get on with his job and start delivering, and the first time he steps out of line, he will be sacked,' one minister said.

The Prime Minister may feel too vulnerable still to upset the right of the party, which controls all the key backbench committees. One option would be to move Mr Portillo sideways out of the limelight into a Cinderella department, such as Transport or Agriculture.

He may balance Mr Portillo's move by bringing into the Cabinet Jonathan Aitken, a right-winger and former backbench critic of European union. He could keep the left of the party content by the overdue promotion of Stephen Dorrell, a junior Treasury minister, who could take over from Mr Portillo in charge of public expenditure, or go to Health, where he has previous experience.

Ministers say Mr Major needs a 'Rottweiler' in the Lord Tebbit mould to bite back at Labour under Tony Blair. Brian Mawhinney, the number two at the Department of Health, is seen as a hard hitter who could do Mr Portillo's job.

Those close to the Prime Minister say the reshuffle will 'not be tinkering, but no Night of the Long Knives' - a reference to the 1962 sacking of seven Cabinet ministers by Harold Macmillan, which smacked of panic.

It is likely three Cabinet ministers will go: Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, who was brought out of retirement to fill the gap left by David Mellor; Lord Wakeham, a veteran Cabinet 'fixer' and Leader of the House of Lords; and John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, who has been heavily criticised by his colleagues for mishandling the changes to education.

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, has denied that he wants to step down. John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, and Tony Newton, Leader of the Commons, have been tipped for the big drop, but sacking too many would look like panic. It spelt the end for Macmillan.

One crucial change will be the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary - his 'eyes and ears' around the Commons. It is generally agreed that Graham Bright has to be replaced by a more senior figure to stop backbenchers treating Mr Major as a punchbag.

(Photographs and graphic showing The Cabinet hokey-cokey omitted)