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The Cabinet Resuffle: Major takes pains to soften the axe's blow: Colin Brown reports on the Prime Minister's efforts to spare the feelings of Cabinet losers

WHEN IT came to the butchery, John Major decided to do it quietly, under cover of darkness.

By killing them softly on the eve of the reshuffle, the Prime Minister had hoped to ease the pain. He was saving them the ordeal of the cameras in the morning, the long walk from the door of Number Ten, trying to keep a stiff upper lip on Sky News, while knowing that their careers were over.

Each of the four Cabinet victims was invited to Downing Street on the eve of the reshuffle to be sacked in person by the Prime Minister, beyond the glare of cameras. John MacGregor, John Patten, Peter Brooke, and Lord Wakeham, were summoned to see Mr Major late on Tuesday night. They arrived after a cocktail party for Tory MPs and their wives, who had been to the Buckingham Palace garden party.

'Typical of the man,' said one close friend of Mr Major. 'He has shown great sensitivity. It can be very distressing.'

Not all were so sensitive. As Mr MacGregor stood at the members' entrance to the Commons vainly searching for his official car, Frank Dobson, the bearded Labour front bencher, said: 'Don't tell me they've taken away your car already?'

'All political careers end in tears,' Alan Clark, the former defence minister, said on the BBC's Today radio programme.

At about the same time, as a brutal signal of his fall from office, Mr Patten's official car called at his London home to collect his red box of Cabinet papers. It left him behind to cope with an abrupt end to a shining career, now destined for the backbenches.

It was easier on Mr Brooke. He wanted to go, but Mr Patten still felt the pain, in spite of reading about his departure for weeks in speculation in the press. His reaction was to go to ground when the news broke.

Gillian Shephard was the first to be called in to see the Prime Minister at 9am, and left after an hour looking delighted to be given Mr Patten's job. She had feared that she would be offered the post of chairman of the party. Feeling relieved, she had a chat over a cup of coffee with Chris Meyer, the Prime Minister's press secretary, before she left.

As she walked down Downing Street, she was stopped by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, who was leaving for the Treasury in his official car. He wound down the window, and asked her what she had got.

The details were a closely guarded secret known only to a few of Mr Major's close aides. Richard Ryder, the Chief Whip, had arrived at Number 12 Downing Street, his official residence, at 7.55am. He had been largely responsible for the list of names on which the Prime Minister based his reshuffle. Sir Norman Fowler, the outgoing chairman of the party, had also given advice. But it had been largely a whips' reshuffle.

'The final appointments are the Prime Minister's but I don't think there have been any promotions which we didn't recommend,' said one whip.

A tractor pulling a water cart trundled into Downing Street. It was watering the hanging baskets. There was no need to swill away the blood from the night before.

The reshuffle was going smoothly. The only stir was caused by the surprise appearance in Downing Street of Douglas Hurd, who was on no one's reshuffle list. Surely Mr Major was not about to sack his Foreign Secretary? Then Mr Hurd swept past the ranks of photographers to the Foreign Office.

William Waldegrave was able to avoid the press by using the passage between the Cabinet Office and Downing Street to be told he was going to the Ministry of Agriculture to replace Mrs Shephard.

David Hunt arrived at 10.15am not knowing what he would get, but convinced by 'leaks' it was likely to be the chairmanship of the party. He was surprised when Mr Major offered him Mr Waldegrave's job. Mr Major quickly reassured him he was to be the Chef de Cabinet, chairman of several Cabinet committees, the Cabinet 'fixer'. Mr Hunt left at 10.53am feeling more satisfied but still confused.

Michael Portillo arrived 10 minutes after Mr Hunt. Some had hoped he would be carpeted by the Prime Minister, but he was given Mr Hunt's job. Mr Portillo left looking pleased with himself, but there was nothing new in that. Friends of Mr Hunt regarded Mr Portillo's promotion as a blow for the left in the Cabinet. 'They have broken the left's hold on the economic departments.'

At the Commons, Tory MPs were in huddles, trying to piece together scraps of information about the moves.

Some hoping for the call from Downing Street made frequent visits to the message board in the members' lobby only to be disappointed, when they found no pink slips waiting.

Adding to the air of unreality in the Commons, all the clocks in the members' lobby had stuck at 11 o'clock.

Across Whitehall, ministers and officials were already packing belongings for their moves. 'I'm packing all my files in a big box and tearing up papers. I do not want to leave anything behind for the next lot,' said one ministerial adviser.

There was confusion and some red faces in ministerial offices, where dismissals were taking place. 'I had an appointment with Peter Lloyd (Home Office minister) but they've told me he's going and they don't know who they are getting yet, so I don't who I am going to see. It's all a bit embarrassing,' said one Tory backbencher.

Throughout the day, private offices were told to have their ministers at Downing Street. But for some there was no call. Virginia Bottomley lost her deputy, Brian Mawhinney, who was promoted to the Cabinet, but she received no call. She had been hoping for a move to an economic portfolio, such as the Employment post which went to Mr Portillo.

She assured friends in the Commons that she was happy to be staying on at health to see the NHS changes in place and was pleased with the appointment of Gerry Malone as her deputy. But one of her colleagues said: 'She's got a year to prove herself.'