A congenial Cabinet - and Hezza

John Major has punished the right of his party and taken a risk in rewarding the radical to his left
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The Independent Online
John Major promised there would be no recriminations; and there weren't recriminations. There was revenge. His cabinet reshuffle was a calculated kick in the teeth for the rebel right; those, like Norman Tebbit, who urged him to reward disloyalty and "listen to the party" have had an unequivocal and brutal reply.

This is not the Major we thought we knew. His previous form and instincts would have suggested the arrival of Michael Howard at the Foreign Office, a top job for Michael Portillo and perhaps even something, in a spirit of reconciliation, for the challenger, John Redwood. Nothing of the sort: almost all the key people in government are now on the left or centre of the party.

The most eye-catching news is the appointment of Michael Heseltine as Archangel and Deputy Lord of Hosts, a move which is pregnant with so many possibilities and dangers, and which carries so much historical resonance, that it fired every imagination at Westminster.

Let us deal first with the obvious. Heseltine is one of the few senior Conservatives with a radical reforming vision for government, covering industry, finance, the civil service and local government. The range of his new job gives him scope to think big and act big.

More than that, he is a superb campaigner, one of the few Tory politicians who can cow most journalists and reduce interviewers to ingratiating titters. True, he has started to send himself up a bit of late; one is increasingly reminded of a fellow minister's mordant crack some years ago that "Heseltine's a bit too much of the thwack of crop upon leather for me.'' But a bit of thwack is just what Major needs.

The contrast with poor David Hunt is instructive. He got a job with similar potential last time round. He has been conspicuously, indeed excessively, loyal. He was Major's man. But he was also no good; so the Prime Minister quite brutally sacked him. This is indeed a new John Major.

There is some personal risk for Major in the Heseltine appointment, simply because the gap between Hezza's title, First Secretary of State and Major's Queen's First Minister, can seem rather a narrow one. Take a man like Heseltine into your house and people may quickly assume he's master of it. He is Deputy Prime Minister, but if he does roaringly well then ill- informed folk may start making the mistake of referring to him as de facto Prime Minister.

That Major is prepared to take this risk shows how little he cares or thinks about the trappings of power, as distinct from the genuine article. He is a man full of pride; but it is a different kind of pride.

It should also be pointed out that the last Tory politician who had both Michael Heseltine's new titles was RA Butler - also a leftish Tory who, in 1963, was urged to refuse to serve under Alec Douglas-Home, precipitating a leadership crisis. Like Heseltine, he pulled back, putting loyalty before ambition and causing much grief to his friends.

One supporter, Iain Macleod, said the "golden ball" had been placed in Butler's lap - "if he drops it now, it's his fault." Enoch Powell said that Butler had been handed a loaded revolver and told all he had to do was pull the trigger; but Butler hadn't wanted to use it if it would make a noise or hurt anyone.

Some of Heseltine's people found poignant parallels in that, and were using not dissimilar language about him last night.

The anti-European right see it differently. They are deeply cheesed off. They thought that Major was bad enough, but Major-plus-Heseltine is awful for them. A day after they thought they were on course for Redwood or Portillo, they find the party in the hands of their enemies.

The risk for Major therefore appears to be a double one - the risk of finding Heseltine standing in front of his fire at Downing Street, shaking hands with his guests, and so forth; and the risk of the right being so furious that they cause more trouble. Right-wingers believe that Heseltine played a brilliant and malign manoeuvre, subverting the leadership contest.

The suggestion is that around lunchtime on Tuesday, the Major camp were very worried that the ballot was going against them. Then Heseltine went to see Major and struck his bargain. Only after that did Redwood supporters see a string of Heseltine enthusiasts, who had previously been ready to abstain, turn up and vote for Major, tipping the balance late in the day.

Would such a plot be possible? Because of the placing of the names Major and Redwood on the ballot-papers, the scrutineers at the count were able to guess which way people were voting by looking at how they held the papers between thumb and finger as they made their mark. So guesstimates about the progress of voting could have been passed to Major.

But the evidence is that Heseltine didn't talk to his people at Westminster, at least directly. Indeed, they are rather frustrated that he was so loyal. Some on the right are also convinced that Heseltine told Major he had to sack Jonathan Aitken, to whom Hezza had hardly been helpful in recent weeks. But again, this may be too neat. I'm told by his friends that Aitken had decided to go anyway.

These stories are interesting not because they are necessarily true, but because they demonstrate the feeling of mistrust and disenfranchisement among right-wingers as they contemplate the new cabinet. Apart from Michael Howard, who didn't win the move to the Foreign Office he'd hoped for, there is not a single right-winger among Major's inner cabinet circle.

This is to be a government of the congenial. Ian Lang, one of the best and most decent Conservatives of his generation, has won a richly deserved promotion. Malcolm Rifkind may have tilted to modish Euro-scepticism. But he is hardly the Foreign Secretary Bill Cash would dream of. The arrival of Michael Portillo at the Ministry of Defence, having lost one department, doesn't balance things up (though there were eruptions of anger coming from the MoD last night). Most ministers reckon so much of the work there has been done that it's a non-job.

What will the congenial do? On one issue there are certainly signs of a fresh approach. In Wales, Scotland and England, the senior people have finally realised that the spread of unelected quangos and the dismantling of local government is a Tory problem and not a Tory solution. If they act accordingly, this is a repentance devoutly to be welcomed.

Policy, though, isn't the pith of what happened yesterday. The real message is that Major the balancer, the skipper between factions, the compromiser, looks as if he, too, has become fed up with his old self. He's decided that now the right have done their worst and failed, he isn't going to listen to them, or to the press, or anyone else. He's going to do what he wants.

Yes, it's a risk. But the past five years have rammed home the old, old lesson that appeasement cannot make you strong. The right kept coming back to Major for more. He kept conceding, and kept shrivelling as a result. It was a deal which could only end in his destruction. Yesterday, he put the cards down and walked away from the table.

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