Let's keep them in their place, said John

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The Independent Online
'STUFF the reshuffle.' (John Major is salt-tongued in private.) 'I've survived the storm. I feel confident. So I'm going to call the damned thing off.'

Now, as regular readers of this column will long since have guessed, the Prime Minister frequently invites its author round for a late-evening 'bevvy' and a natter about his in-tray. Lately, we have been discussing the performance of his colleagues and, at the risk of being thought indiscreet, I have decided it would help all concerned to pass his musings on. Mr Major has decided, after giving the Carling Black Label a fair battering, that the case for cancelling the reshuffle is now irresistible.

It would be a sign of strength to do so, I agreed. If the policies are good, there's no reason to reshuffle. If they aren't, reshuffling won't perk them up. Even before he became Prime Minister, Mr Major had argued that it was better for ministers to be kept in their jobs for most of a parliament. It stopped them charging into hasty legislation each year simply to leave their mark before being moved. It made them clear up the mess they created.

Reshuffles, as the PM pointed out to me while dismembering a six-pack, have long been overrated. 'When was the last one which, in retrospect, lived up to its preview? You wallies write all these pieces about 'a radical shake-up' and the 'new face of government' and within a week it looks to everybody remarkably like the old face. No votes in that. Just lots of whining from the Bastards. Pass us a Blackie.'

As I struggled to think of a successful reshuffle, Mr Major held up a shaky finger. 'Wun,' he said, 'just wun. The slaughter of the wets in September '81 gave Margaret the cabinet base she needed. Had to do it.' But, as he ruefully pointed out, the politics of ideological slaughter, gunning down the right or even the left, were not for him. 'I'm the unity candidate, the jolly old paper-overer.' For a moment he seemed a little crestfallen at the thought. 'John Redwood,' he mumbled savagely, 'daka-daka-daka]'

Then he sighed, shook his head, and we moved on to more eminent names. No question of moving the biggest players. The Chancellor was no macroeconomist, probably thought Milton Friedman played tenor sax. But, 'Ken's no danger while taxes are still going up.' And Hurd didn't want to move. Didn't fancy Rifkind getting the job. 'Good man, Douglas.' Howard would look better at the Home Office with Blair out of the way. And 'Hessy' would be furious to be asked to take over the party chairmanship. A broad grin spread across the Prime Ministerial countenance. 'Tempting.' But he finally decided it would be a sign of over-confidence to tweak a dormant Heseltine.

So if Clarke, Hurd, Howard and Heseltine were staying, then the reshuffle was already condemned to be a damp squib. What about Portillo? Well, he wanted a spending department. 'But I don't like the way he narrows his eyes when he speaks to me. I don't see why advancing Boy Wonder's plans for world domination should be my personal priority.'

What, then, of the next rank of ministers? The paucity of Scottish and Welsh Tories meant it was hard to avoid leaving Ian Lang and Redwood running those territories. John Patten was 'over the worst.' Anyway, education was about the only policy area where the Government was leading Labour in the polls. 'I don't see how handing the NUT John's scalp would help.'

A bigger problem was the Health Secretary (or 'Botty' as the PM calls her). She'd fouled up the London hospital closures, he said. Half of the dozen paid-up Tories left in the South seemed to be on the Save Guy's Hospital campaign committee. There was that carpet man who'd ploughed lots into a Guy's intensive care unit. He'd come storming round, saying he was 'bloody angry'. So what, I asked. So he was only a deputy treasurer of the Tory party, said Major, and you know how hard they are to come by. But, he added, Sarah Hogg's No 10 policy unit was giving Botty a very hard time. It was her mess. It was going to be her job to sort it out.

Then the Prime Minister unveiled another late-night principle: it was wrong for one chap to put together a new policy and then leave another chap to implement it. All that happened was that the second chap ballsed things about just to show he'd arrived, and then blamed anything that went wrong on the first chap; while the first chap went round telling journalists over lunch what a balls-up of his brilliant scheme the second chap was making. That meant that Malcolm Rifkind had to stay at Defence, where the 'Front Line First' package is pending. And Peter Lilley, whose review of social security was almost ready, should stay there.

In terms of political news that left us with a small earthquake in Chile. Sir Norman Fowler was already going, John MacGregor wouldn't make a fuss about being asked to go, nor would Peter Brooke or Tony Newton. There were people who deserved a leg-up - Stephen Dorrell, David Davies, Jonathan Aitken. But (and here, with only a can or two of lager left standing) the PM's decent instincts came out. Why, he asked, should it be the good guys, the decent, dependable ones such as MacGregor and Newton, who were punished for loyalty? Bloody unfair, no? 'I'm not doing it.'

What about Archer? 'I keep telling everyone I'm uneasy about giving him the party chairmanship. So I am. That explosive energy, that too-frank tongue. But, you know, the party's in a dreadful state. We need a bit of fun. Zip was never Norman's forte. And Margaret would be pleased. It's a risk but . . . let's give it a whirl.'

So, virtually no reshuffle at all? What about all those pushy young right-wingers on the back benches, those knights wanting office, all those 'loyalists' giving him one last chance? The man positively snarled. If he was disinclined to punish loyalty, he was (expletive) if he was going to reward disloyalty. They could stew. The Prime Minister slowly drained the last can and leaned back. 'So that's it, Andrew,' he said, 'stuff the reshuffle.' I only hope he remembers.

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