The Cabinet Reshuffle: Showbiz and style in revamp at Tory HQ: Selection of armed forces minister and a writer of popular television dramas gives unexpected gloss to new appointments at Smith Square

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The Independent Online
CONSERVATIVE Central Office was the focus yesterday of a large- scale - and distinctly showbiz - revamp.

Jeremy Hanley, the armed forces minister, and son of the actress Dinah Sheridan and the late Jimmy Hanley, was the big surprise of the Prime Minister's reshuffle as the chosen replacement for Sir Norman Fowler, the retiring party chairman.

But with him came Michael Dobbs, author of House of Cards, as an equally stylish deputy, and John Maples, the former Treasury minister, who lost his Lewisham West seat at the general election.

Mr Hanley, 48, faces the daunting task of restoring both Conservative morale in the country and the party's standing in the opinion polls. He will also have to continue the repair of party finances. Sir Norman had begun that task but, despite a surplus last year, the overall deficit, with an election no more than three years away, still stands at pounds 17m.

His lack of experience, however, has been bolstered by the arrival of Mr Maples, the highly regarded former Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who is now chairman and chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi Government Communications Worldwide, and by the recruitment of Central Office veteran Mr Dobbs, both as deputies. Mr Dobbs is best known for his books, To Play the King and House of Cards - which were made into television series - in which he created the murderous chief whip Francis Urquhart. His catch phrase: 'You might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment', has even been quoted by John Major at Prime Minister's Questions.

However, Mr Dobbs's background is in advertising, where he rose to be deputy chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, and in the run-up to the general election he was Norman Tebbit's chief of staff at Central Office during the latter's tenure as party chairman. Mr Dobbs's on-off-on experience of Central Office stretches to the 1970s when he worked in the Conservative Research Department.

Angela Rumbold, the deputy chairman in charge of candidates, remains, as do all the vice-chairmen, but Graham Bright, until yesterday the Prime Minister's parliamentary private secretary, joins them with special responsibilities for marginal seats - an interest close to his heart, given his 799 majority in Luton South.

Mr Hanley enjoyed an instant honeymoon with the media yesterday, posing affably on the steps of St John's Church in Smith Square, and being greeted by Sir Norman and the headquarters staff where he declared that he wanted 'to make politics fun again'.

The party's position in the polls, he said, 'can only go up', as he acknowledged that the job was 'a tough challenge'.

The appointment of a relative unknown to a post which Westminster speculation had offered to various Cabinet heavyweights brought jibes from Labour. Margaret Beckett, the acting party leader, said that it showed the depth of Tory unpopularity. 'John Major is unable to find a senior figure to take on what must now be the worst job in British politics.'

Lord Archer, the other best-selling Tory novelist, who had entertained hopes of the chairman's job, admitted his disappointment but declared Mr Major to have made 'a wise decision', appointing 'the best man for the job'.