Nudges, wiggles, but no fun

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The Independent Online
WAS IT worth it? Less radical than having no reshuffle, but not a serious, knock-'em-dead transformation either, yesterday's government changes were ruefully described in the Commons tea- room as making the Liberal Democrat reshuffle look exciting. They provide a 10,000-mile service for the Major administration, but the impact on voters will be zero.

Jeremy Hanley's elevation to the Tory chairmanship has caused the most comment, which is itself a pretty devastating comment on the relative pointlessness of it all. Mr Hanley is a good and capable man. But he is hardly what we would call, in the normal course of events, news. The theme of the reshuffle is the clump, clump of sound, loyal, unimaginative, sensible souls rising through the administration.

The Cabinet's left-right balance, so eagerly watched by those with nothing better to do, is little altered. To put it another way, no faction has been rewarded or punished. No furious backbench tirades. No dramatic defenestrations of disloyalists. It was, in short, no fun. Even the sackings were carried out humanely, at night, away from the cameras. Is this strictly constitutional?

Every nudge to the left was countered by a wiggle to the right. Each clear signal was blurred by the briefings that followed. Nothing so neatly caught the deliberate ideological fuzziness of the reshuffle as the contradictory messages sent out about David Hunt and Michael Portillo.

Mr Hunt, who once ill-advisedly described himself as a Christian Democrat and is therefore considered to be a bit of a leftie, takes over a ragbag of Cabinet Office responsibilities - civil service reform, the Citizen's Charter, science - and will be formally known as Minister for Soft Furnishings. In the normal way, this would be a demotion. But Mr Hunt is to chair no fewer than six cabinet committees. He arrived rather hurt and bewildered, but left having been given the arduous task of being the Prime Minister's Best Friend.

Mr Portillo, who wasn't, wanted to move to a spending department and instead got Employment. There, his main task will be to read out the monthly jobless totals, thus showing the nation how brilliantly well the Prime Minister (curses]) is doing. He will also be expected to be rebuffed by the European Court and to row with his fellow-Bastard Peter Lilley about who should be in charge of the jobseekers' allowance. A reeking pail- full of glamour, that.

His admirers point out, however, that Mr Portillo has made a right-wing breach in the economic ministries and will have plenty of time to pen speeches laying out his vision of Toryism and preparing for the next leadership contest. He will also be able to work closely with Mr Lilley to hatch a radical overhaul of the welfare state for the next election.

So it's a right-wing move, then? Ah well, but recall that Kenneth Clarke chairs the committees that oversee welfare spending. It is as if every force has been carefully balanced by another, like some masterpiece of architecture held together only by stresses.

Stephen Dorrell, the left's answer to Portillo, has made it into Cabinet, but only to the small job of National Heritage. Probably, Mr Major means to signal that Portillo has been slightly let down and Dorrell slightly rewarded. But the shifts were barely perceptible to the Tory experts and will be wholly lost on the general public: very Majorish.

Instead of bold strokes and ritual cruelty, it was a day devoted to what Bagehot lauded as England's speciality, dull government. Gillian Shephard, for example, is proving herself one of the Government's good and sensible people. She has a brisk common-sense feel to her which was admired at the agriculture department. Will she transform the Government's fortunes at education?

Perhaps. Poll ratings were actually pretty good under the robust Mr Patten, who will henceforth, I predict, become a mainstay of the Spectator magazine. He, however, was thought to be too beastly to the teachers. Mrs Shephard will be the bearer of balm and sweet reason. But Virginia Bottomley was sent to Health to be emollient about the reforms there, and look what happened to her. Still, this is a popular and capable loyalist, rightly rewarded.

As for William Waldegrave, the cruder souls on the Tory back benches have been hooting at the thought of the most cerebral Tory spending his time scratching pigs' ears at Oswestry market. They feel, in the words of Margot Asquith about FE Smith, that 'he is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head' and that agriculture will take him down a peg or two.

But the point about Mr Waldegrave's new job is that he will be involved in the European arguments. He wants to be. One leathery old Euro-sceptic pointed out that it was dangerous to put a clever man into the agricultural job: he might well turn his attention to the Common Agricultural Policy, notice that it was mad, and campaign for its reform. Let's see.

And that, broadly speaking, is that. Some obscure joke has presumably been played on Jeffrey Archer with the move to Central Office of the younger and less successful, but almost as cheery, novelist Michael Dobbs. This was the man who created a murderous fictional prime minister. Now he is deputy chairman of the party. What does it mean? Search this columnist. Someone nobody had realised was an MP has been appointed bag-carrier to the Prime Minister. Funny business.

So, again, was it worth it? The trouble with any reshuffle is that it focuses more attention, in the longer term, on the shuffler than the shuffled. Thus, as one old observer put it, Lord Wakeham has been sacked for lacking the gravitas of the Prime Minister, John Patten has been sacked for lacking the sense of mission of the Prime Minister, John MacGregor has been sacked for lacking the communication skills of the Prime Minister, and Peter Brooke has been sacked for lacking the charisma of the Prime Minister.

This will not change the fortunes of the Major administration, nor, in a sense, should it. It is the policies that matter: few politicians really touch the voters' hearts. There are great tensions still in this administration, particularly over Europe, and the caution of the reshuffle has done nothing to diminish them. There is clearly, for instance, a certain uneasiness in No 10 about the Chancellor's propensity for making philosophical speeches. Philosophy, in this climate, is decoded as personal advertisement.

The jousting of Crown Princelings will continue unabated, and to that extent the Prime Minister's lack of brutality yesterday may harm him. Outwardly, this was another stage in the evolution of Mr Major's balanced, calm and sound administration. But mutual suspicions and feverish manoeuvring rustle the bushes all the while. Sadly for its leader, the Government isn't yet as dull as it seems.