Norman Lamont has fallen foul of low politics and Kenneth Clarke has been its beneficiary. The same economic policies will follow; but the impact may be very different. John Major has listened to the swirl of dissent and black propaganda gushing around Westminster, and gambled.
He has gambled, first, that the axeing of his old friend will rebuild some of his own standing as Prime Minister: that it will be seen as strength, not weakness. The word was getting round that Mr Major was too scared to sack his Chancellor. Mr Major couldn't afford to live with that. If the next year proves anything like as disaster-ridden as the past one, he faces political assassination himself. And for the first time, now that Kenneth Clarke is Chancellor, he has a successor-in-waiting.
Why then has he elevated Mr Clarke to the Treasury rather than some less threatening, less pushy figure, like John MacGregor? We'll return to that. Next, though, Mr Major's second gamble: that Mr Lamont will not turn on his former boss in public (see below). Only a few hours before he was sacked, Mr Lamont had been quietly confident that he retained Mr Major's personal support, and was sceptical about whether any reshuffle was looming. He must feel bitterly hurt.
Margaret Thatcher would have dealt with Mr Lamont rather differently. If she had thought he presented a threat, she would have allowed her press office to shred his reputation for months before moving. Mr Lamont, puzzled and hurt, would have been in to see her. She would have been mystified and sympathetic. But by the time the sacking came, the Chancellor would have been dead meat.
This Prime Minister has been straighter. Among the voters, Mr Lamont had seemed pretty discredited anyway, but Mr Major's honourable determination not to 'assassinate' ministers before removing them means that the former Chancellor retains some friends and admirers on the Tory back benches. Under the right circumstances, and with the right allies, he could be a dangerous enemy if Mr Major slips.
Mr Lamont is not a vicious or bitter man, so Mr Major may be all right. But history suggests that ministers torn away from the thrill and limelight of top jobs find it hard to remain silently loyal forever, whatever their early intentions. Mr Major has decided that such dangers are outweighed by the advantages of having Mr Clarke in No 11. For the time being, the sensitive question of Britain's re-entry to the exchange rate mechanism is irrelevant to all this. The new Chancellor has not been appointed as a 'good European' but as a ruthless operator. His job is to restore a public borrowing level modest enough to allow tax cuts before the next election.
That will require political courage and even a certain brutishness. I would guess that Mr Clarke's admirers on the left of the Conservative Party will be surprised at how strongly he supports and promotes at least some of the Portillo cuts. He is no maniac. But he is an unusually single-minded politician, which will matter for an administration that has been anything but. He will deliver. And if he goes for short-term tax increases, we can be sure that such a parliamentary U-turn will be conducted with all the shameless verve of his recent U-turn on unit fines.
Mr Clarke is regularly labelled a left-winger. He has some of the liberal instincts of a child of the Sixties. But he is, first, a populist Tory. He leaves at the Home Office a huge package of law-and-order measures that he had intended to use to destroy Labour's Tony Blair this autumn. Michael Howard will inherit a legislative armoury of fearsome proportions.
So the new Chancellor could be the man to give the Tory party back its sense of direction and confidence. The Euro-sceptical right has been further marginalised by this reshuffle, and the Government looks more pro- European and less Thatcherite than it did last week. It looks, more and more, just the sort of Cabinet that Mr Clarke would like, one day, to inherit.
There is no doubt that this reshuffle has strengthened Mr Major's government after a year of disasters, U- turns and pratfalls. But it has been achieved by rebuilding the Cabinet around Mr Clarke, who now stands with the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, as virtually the political equal of the Prime Minister. If Mr Major is to ensure that the stronger Cabinet equals a stronger prime minister, he will now have to look to his own office and his own performance.
But he should not, for the time being, worry first about cabinet predators. The sense of drift is a greater threat to Mr Major than is Mr Clarke, or indeed Mr Lamont. A more directed, purposeful administration, even if it is doing unpopular things, will be a more successful one. If Mr Clarke's elevation helps that to come about, the Prime Minister's gamble will probably pay off.
If, on the other hand, Mr Major flounders through the next year, he will be ousted by the very people he has elevated. He has done the bold and right thing in choosing Mr Clarke. The new Chancellor will this morning be a grateful and enthusiastic Major loyalist. But, as the outgoing Chancellor can doubtless confirm, politics is not a sentimental sport.Reuse content