The redundant ritual of reshuffling

Sacking ministers is the classic response of a prime minister in trouble - but nothing will change
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According to the common rumour of Whitehall, John Major is to ''reshuffle'' his cabinet again this summer, sacking or demoting the most disliked ministers. He must do this because he can hardly reshuffle his policies, is disinclined to demote himself, and cannot sack the electorate - and because the deadbeats of the 1922 Committee, without knowing what he should do, are determined that he should do something.

The reshuffle ritual goes a long way towards explaining why a British Cabinet isn't effective - imagine a business which switched around its senior managers every 18 months. The political reshuffle is a contraption which, had it been designed to produce the maximum ignorance, disruption and ineffectiveness at the top of government, could hardly be bettered.

Once Mr Major believed this himself. He was resolved to leave ministers in post for most of a parliament. It would then be in their interests to think about the medium-term, not only tomorrow's headlines. They would hold their jobs for long enough to deal with any mistakes they made in their first few years, and take credit for successfully maturing policies. They would be judged on the whole policy as it was implemented, not merely on how many pages of legislation they forced through the Commons. In time, they would come to know almost as much about their own responsibilities as their top officials. This would help to ensure that the country's government was run by elected politicians, not by its permanent bureaucracy.

A nice thought. It may still be Mr Major's private view. But politics is about show business as well as administration, and the short-term PR failings and panicky reactions of the party have long since overwhelmed the interest of good government. Those semi-mythical beasts, the ''Men in Suits'', want a reshuffle and must be heard.

(Since language matters so much in politics, it is perhaps worth noting, in passing, how irritatingly lax that phrase is. Because it refers to the chief chaps of the backbenches, it implies the existence of a hierarchy of Tory toggery, including such subsidiary ranks as ''the Men in Cashmere Cardigans''; ''the Women in M&S Slacks'' and ''the Youths in Shellsuits''. But this is not so. All Conservative MPs wear suits, except for those who wear bright floral dresses - the latter being, in many cases, female.)

Anyway, having nothing better to suggest, these immaculately tailored fellows who are too dim to have ever made it into government themselves, want Mr Major to change around the jobs of those who have. In some cases, they would like him to go. If they could blink and make him disappear, they would. But they are too nervous, or realistic, to suggest that, so they content themselves by saying not that he is a duff leader, but that - sadly, ah - some his appointments have been duff.

Some have been, of course. Jeremy Hanley has barely disguised his own opinion of himself as duffer-in-chief at Central Office and replacing him is the biggest single challenge facing Mr Major in a reshuffle.

Senior cabinet people want Major to give the job to Michael Portillo. The left regards Portillo as a minister who has partly detached himself from the deeply unpopular administration, a would-be Opposition leader who has gone into internal exile for the duration of this government. There is particular fury about his sucking-up to home-owners and married couples; his comments about these last week seem to imply that he opposes the 1993-95 programme of cuts in the married couples tax allowance and mortgage interest tax relief, approved while he himself was at the Treasury.

At any rate, the idea is that by making Portillo party chairman, Major would tie the Employment Secretary's fortunes to those of the Government itself; he would be obliged to be the Prime Minister's keenest advocate, and stick enthusiastically by all current policies.

Privately, the conspirators of the right hate the idea. They aren't fools. Just as the left want Portillo to be chairman, so the right say that ''Hezza's the man'': the job is like a ticking parcel being desperately chucked by each wing of the party back at the other. Publicly, though, when the music stops the lucky recipient has to grin and pretend to be ''deeply honoured''.

Major enjoys such tactical whips' thinking. But he may conclude that the risks of going into combat with Portillo, whom he dislikes, are too great. If so, he will go for a trusty mate, such as Ian Lang or Gillian Shephard - as near as he can find to a replacement for Chris Patten, with whom he fought the 1992 election. But whichever way Major jumps, this will be an appointment worth watching.

The next person in the firing line seems to be Virginia Bottomley. The more sweet-reasonable she tries to be, the more the public seem to hate her; while her expected replacement, Stephen Dorrell at National Heritage, is much less well known but is liked by those who have heard of him. Rumour has it that Major had intended them to have one another's jobs last time round. But, as one senior Downing Street source (Ethel Bronson the tea- lady, since you ask) tells the story, ''Virginia got the wobbly lip and said it wasn't a senior department ... and the Prime Minister bottled it.''

Rather a sweet story, no? But he is unlikely to bottle out this time, so Dorrell may shortly have the opportunity to become hated by the public in his turn. Politics being a funny business, this is a martyrdom for which he yearns.

As for the rest, no truly dramatic changes are likely, despite the worried whufflings of the Men in Trousers and the desire of the right wing to get rid of Kenneth Clarke and Douglas Hurd. The cabinet's top people show no sign of jumping ship and won't be pushed. It is possible that Richard Ryder, the chief whip, could decide to move aside. But he knows far too much for Major to reshuffle him against his will.

This leaves us with lesser changes. In this case, I understand that Donald Dralon is to be moved to the Procurement Ministry; Sir Tim Rayon is getting animal disablement; Anne Wool is to be given a leg-up at National Bureaucracy; and - a bold stroke - Norman Lycra-Undergarments is to take over the highly successful Small Firms Bankruptcy Unit at the Treasury. Then there is Tim Eggar....

We are shaping up, in short, for a classic reshuffle. A few will go, a few will change jobs. The grisly human drama of tremulous figures leaving Downing Street and smug smilers arriving will duly be enacted. Headlines containing the words radical, axe, shake-up and drama, will briefly flare. But within a few days, only a few voters will remember the details.

Whenever these changes come, they will fail to appease the Prime Minister's critics in the party, for such people cannot be appeased. They will fail to slake the voters' thirst for vengeance: for the time being, that is too strong to be answered by a reshuffle. And they will do absolutely nothing for the better governance of the country; for that was never their object.