Mr Major's next trick

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The Independent Online
John Major played his favourite role yesterday - the conjuror who doesn't do tricks. As the audience waited breathlessly he took out a handkerchief, folded it and cut a hole in it. With a flourish he straightened it out to reveal ... a handkerchief with a hole in it. The surprise was that there was no surprise - the Prime Minister was having fun like only he knows how to have it.

As this Government reaches late middle age it is thickening in the middle. The loyal centre is rewarded for its fidelity and strengthened slightly in Cabinet. There are no concessions whatsoever to the disaffected and defeated right. John Redwood, predictably, is left out in the cold and Michael Portillo (the real loser of the last few days) inherits in Defence a ministry where his freedom of action and comment is highly circumscribed. The imbalance towards the left in the Cabinet is unaltered, with the departure of the right-wingers Jonathan Aitken and Mr Redwood evened up by the loss of Douglas Hurd and David Hunt. The advent of the leftish toughie Alastair Goodlad as Chief Whip augurs badly for the rebellious right. Last night they were muttering.

A second theme in the reshuffle is its proximity to the next election. To help boost popularity Michael Heseltine has somehow been promoted from President to Deputy Prime Minister - a change of nomenclature designed to confuse foreign commentators. The idea seems to be to move his charismatic form closer to political centre-stage in the run-up to a national poll. From a theatrical point of view, if from no other, this will be welcomed in newspaper offices and television studios throughout the land.

But more than anything else what characterises this reshuffle is its implication that there is very little new talent available for the Prime Minister to draw on. With able MPs such as David Willetts and David Lidington considered too inexperienced to deserve fast promotion, Mr Major's gene pool is revealed as dangerously shallow. Thus the intelligent but troubled William Waldegrave is retained and moved from Agriculture to become Chief Secretary, while Virginia Bottomley gets the Heritage job, which she has already refused once in the lifetime of this Government.

Some new talent has made its way in, though. The Shirley Temple of the Tory party, William Hague, will find himself commuting from his Yorkshire seat to Wales. Scots will be less happy at the appearance in the Scottish Office of the zealous right-winger Michael Forsyth.

On the plus side are the retention of the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke; the appointment as Health Secretary of the intelligent Stephen Dorrell; and the promotion of Malcolm Rifkind to the Foreign Office, instead of Michael Howard. Welcome too is the decision to abolish the Employment department, dividing its responsibilities between Education and Social Security. The TUC general secretary, John Monks, immediately reacted by complaining that this move deprived the unemployed of a focus for their hopes. But the best chance for the unemployed lies in enhanced training, which under the present division has never been properly addressed by the education system. Whether Gillian Shephard has the imagination to seize this chance is an open question.

So it was a relatively astute and quintessentally Majorite reshuffle; the kind of shift that you might expect from a prime minister, say, three points ahead in the polls and forced into making changes by the departure of a long-serving and respected foreign secretary. His legislative programme more or less completed, such a prime minister can take the opportunity to get his cabinet ready for the battle ahead.

But Mr Major is not in this position, or anything like it. His party is riven with unresolved dispute, his Government is 30 points behind in the polls and his administration looks directionless and tired. In the next 12 months he faces Scott and another set of council elections. He is going to need to find a trick that does have some magic in it.