Leading Article: Putting a pretty face on poor government

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The Independent Online
IF John Major reshuffles his Cabinet over the next few days, expect a string of phrases along the lines of: 'Major's fresh start', 'injection of new blood', and 'Cabinet that will get the message across'. There will be a flurry of apparent activity when ministers behave, as Lord Jenkins so aptly put it, 'like busy little pygmies'. Some cabinet ministers will face political oblivion, victims of their own overpromotion, tiredness or sacrifices to a public fed up with the Government's mishandled policies. The Prime Minister may wield the hatchet to save his own skin. 'Greater love,' remarked Jeremy Thorpe of Harold Macmillan's night of the long knives, 'hath no man than this: that he lay down his friends for his life.'

Significance will be read into certain appointments. The left will see its star rising if Kenneth Clarke succeeds Norman Lamont, while the right will be pleased if Michael Howard moves into No 11. Should John MacGregor be handed the keys of the Treasury, the signal will be 'steady as we go'. Likewise, the unseating of John Patten at education would send a message that teachers will be treated with kid gloves.

But none of these moves would mark a dramatic change of direction. Reshuffles are generally more cosmetic, an attempt to breathe life into a government that appears dead beat. Margaret Thatcher indulged in them endlessly, purging her enemies and promoting many of the politicians who have risen without trace to inhabit John Major's Cabinet. Constant ministerial changes created a revolving door at the Department of Trade and Industry. Meanwhile, Kenneth Baker, among others, left behind a trail of booby traps - half-implemented policies - as he moved from ministry to ministry.

Reshuffles are damaging to both the continuity of government and the accountability of politicians. They increase the considerable power of civil servants in dictating policy as ministers spend months gaining knowledge and confidence in a new ministry. Although reshuffles give the appearance of action, they are more a means for distracting the public than going to the heart of genuine policy problems.

For these reasons, Mr Major may be wise to resist pressure to make significant changes in the Cabinet. The contenders for seats around the table are unburdened by conspicuous talent. They could be left another year to hone their skills in more junior positions. Instead of promoting them, Mr Major should focus his current team's experience on developing new policies. Indeed, for his own good, he might reflect on what happened to two avid reshufflers. The beginning of the end for Macmillan, for example, is often traced to that night in 1962 when he sacked half his Cabinet. Margaret Thatcher also went a step too far with her demotion of Sir Geoffrey Howe, whose resignation in November 1990 led directly to her downfall.

The Prime Minister, increasingly mocked for his retreats and lack of leadership, may be tempted to dazzle the public with promotions, demotions and sackings. But the real test of his government in the next general election will be its record, not its pretty faces.