Leading Article: A small shuffle to the right

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The Independent Online
RESHUFFLES rarely have any significant impact on a government's public standing. Yesterday's, judiciously contrived and well managed though it was, is unlikely to prove an exception. None the less they have their value. They provide that element of change which all organisations need: a chance to remove those who appear to be burnt out, those who have not fulfilled their promise, and those who wish to spend more time with their families or bank accounts. Change gives hope to able people who deserve promotion. Their career moves may eventually prove to be of considerable significance to the party as well as to themselves.

Reshuffles also make possible a rebalancing of the varying ideological strands within the government team, and offer a chance to improve the performance of important departments that have clearly been under-performing.

The need for John Major to refurbish his Government's image was not in doubt. After 15 years in power, the Conservatives are clearly tired, running out of good ideas, and stand unprecedentedly low in public esteem. In the past 12 months they have suffered a series of humiliating defeats in by-elections, and have performed badly in local and European elections. Their divisions over Europe, papered over for the moment, have damaged the Government's reputation at home and abroad.

On top of all that, the Labour Party will today announce the election of a voter-friendly new leader with obvious potential to damage the Tories, especially in the South. The reshuffle was evidently timed to divert attention from Tony Blair's anointing. In that it is only likely to succeed for a few hours.

For the Tory machine as a whole, yesterday's exercise looks modestly helpful. The appointment of Jeremy Hanley as party chairman within the Cabinet is a gamble. Mr Hanley's abilities as a manager and potential front-man for a government under pressure are untested. But he is a shrewd operator of sunny disposition from the loyalist centre of the party, with a gift for making witty and entertaining speeches. As such he should do much to lift the morale of the dwindling band of faithful from its present trough. Similarly, Gillian Shephard is well equipped to succeed the self-regarding and intemperate John Patten at Education. She stands to the right of the party's centre, but is sensible, decent, competent and has spent much of her career in education.

Fears, or hopes, that Mr Major would seek favour with the party's noisy right wing have been only partially fulfilled. Michael Portillo has been given his own department at Employment. It is a relatively low-profile and inadequately funded one: less broadly influential than his previous Treasury post, but with potential for development - and for high-profile squabbles with Brussels over Social Chapter legislation. Jonathan Aitken, who succeeds him at the Treasury, is of the right in a less Thatcherite, more old-fashioned mode.

If Mr Aitken's entry is cheering for that tendency, so is Stephen Dorrell's belated, if inadequate, promotion (to Heritage) for the left. By contrast, David Hunt, another pro-European liberal, is expected to wield considerable power as the Prime Minister's new Mr Fixit, nebulous though his post might seem.

The great survivors are Michael Howard, Home Secretary, and Virginia Bottomley at Health. Mrs Bottomley's low public reputation derives both from her irritating manner and the unpopularity of the reforms she inherited. Far more extraordinary is the unquestioning retention of Mr Howard at the Home Office.

His is arguably the worst-run important department of state, with some senior staff in near mutiny over the manner in which they and their advice have been treated by ministers. Mr Howard has constantly preened himself on his draconian measures against crime. But his two major pieces of legislation have been torn to shreds by the Lords. Even more remarkably, thanks to Tony Blair's handling of the Opposition home affairs portfolio, the public now rates Labour's law and order policies above the Tories'. Mr Howard is saved by being that rare phenomenon, a right- winger loyal to Mr Major; and it is the Lords who are blamed for being irresponsible. On this issue, Mr Major has shown a lack of nerve that he may come to regret.