For Harold Macmillan 1962 was not going well, and he feared worse was to come. A colleague recalled Macmillan saying that there was a danger of a split in the Cabinet, implying a conspiracy against himself.
Why he reacted to this in the way he did is still a matter of controversy. Perhaps he was panicked by the press or by concern for sterling, or perhaps the whole thing was done in cold blood. Either way, the event has assumed a place in history as Macmillan's 'Night of the Long Knives'.
On Friday 13 July he announced that he was sacking seven Cabinet ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Selwyn Lloyd, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir. This set in motion a wholesale government reshuffle which involved 52 people and affected 39 of the 101 ministerial posts.
If the scale was breathtaking, so was the style. Dismissing senior colleagues with long years of loyal service behind them, Macmillan was graceless and brutal. Customary courtesies were omitted and the usual pretence that the parting was by mutual agreement was forgotten. Even those who had previously indicated they might be ready to move on were, as one said, 'exposed to the greatest possible degree of publicity and stress'.
Nothing like it has ever been seen before or since. The Daily Telegraph gasped at the 'Stalinist scale of the purge' and the Conservative Party was reported to be 'pole-axed by shock'. Macmillan's actions have been portrayed as the ultimate display of the Prime Minister's power over his colleagues.
Such wholesale house-cleaning is a course which must surely have figured in the daydreams of John Major in recent weeks as he has contemplated his difficulties in Cabinet, party and country. Like Macmillan, he is deep in a mid-term trough and could benefit from a public perception that a 'new' government with fresh ideas is taking over. He might also like to dispose of the irksome 'bastards', as some backbenchers have suggested he should, and he could be forgiven for fearing, as Macmillan did, that some of his colleagues are plotting against him.
As it happens, another Friday 13th is approaching this week, but Major should beware. The Night of the Long Knives was not well received. Macmillan's image of patrician unflappability was tarnished by a feeling that he had acted cruelly and in panic to preserve his own position. The verdict of the Liberal Jeremy Thorpe struck home: 'Greater love hath no man than he lay down his friends for his life.'
The opinion polls showed the Prime Minister's popularity slumping to unprecedented depths, with only 36 per cent satisfied with his performance (a score Major, currently on 21 per cent, would give his eye-teeth for). Macmillan himself believed he had made a mistake, and both Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher said later that after what they saw in 1962 they would never have contemplated such a purge.
Recent historians have delivered a more equivocal verdict on the events of July 1962. Alistair Horne, Macmillan's official biographer, wrote that in the short term at least 'the scars seemed to fade with remarkable speed'. There was certainly lasting damage to the Prime Minister's image, but he soon found that his party and the country liked his new, expansionist economic policies.
Another historian, Keith Alderman of York University, believes that in broad terms the Night of the Long Knives produced the desired effect. Conservatives closed ranks and Macmillan found himself leading a fresh team including some bright new talents. That he was obliged to resign 16 months later was the result of illness, not weakness, and his political difficulties at that time were brought on by such setbacks as the Vassall spy case and the Profumo affair. (John Profumo, as luck would have it, was one of the ministers whom Macmillan did not sack in 1962.)
Whatever its political significance, the Night of the Long Knives produced one sad little epilogue, which is recounted by Alistair Horne. Selwyn Lloyd had been a loyal supporter, and for some years Macmillan had allowed him to live in Chequers at the weekends. Now he was sacked as Chancellor, and widely seen as wronged.
'Deprived of the solace of Chequers . . . the lonely man left behind him, in charge of the housekeepers, his labrador - his only companion. When the annual Cabinet photograph was next taken there, the
unhappy dog wandered through the group of posing ministers, looking for his lost master, and a minister remarked wanly: 'That's Selwyn's dog . . .' '