While reshuffles are often an unpleasant ordeal for the cabinet members who have lost their jobs those ministers who have been sacked no longer face the humiliation of having to run the gauntlet of television cameras in Downing Street in order to get their marching orders from the Prime Minister of the day.
Losers in the first shake-up of the coalition government were told of their fate by David Cameron in the privacy of the Prime Minister’s rooms in the House of Commons.
He learned at first hand as a 26-year-old political adviser the brutality of a badly-managed reshuffle and was keen that the first ministerial casualties of his administration were shielded from the kind of public pain suffered by his ex boss the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont who was dumped by John Major in the cabinet clear out of May 1993.
Lamont was summoned from No. 11 to No. 10 to be told the news just after 10am – he refused to accept Major’s counter offer of a switch to the Department of the Environment – but he was left hanging out to dry for the rest of the day with only Cameron to keep him company.
Finally at 4pm, with still no official announcement from Downing Street, Lamont’s patience snapped and he dispensed with ritual exchange of resignation letters. Instead he asked Cameron to issue a personal statement on his behalf in which the ex-Chancellor sought to defend his record at the Treasury despite the debacle surrounding Britain’s hurried exit the year before from the Exchange Rate Mechanism.
Major had followed the traditional practice of calling in ministers to Downing Street to inform them of their fate...they then had to walk out of the No 10 front door to face the waiting cameras for a second time.
By today’s standards Lamont’s sacking was a brutal affair and during the agonising wait for the official reshuffle announcement Cameron’s role as the ex-Chancellor’s sole companion was his first taste of crisis pr. The two were spotted having lunch at a small Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge and the ensuing stake-out by journalists was another lesson in the dangers of allowing the fallout from a cabinet reshuffle to be turned into a mini drama for the cameras.
In his reshuffle the following year Major turned the tables on the waiting political correspondents and television crews by ending the annual blood sports in Downing Street. He called in only those ministers who were being promoted and whom he knew would be pleased with the changes he was announcing.
Today’s reshuffles have become far more civilised with the outgoing ministers either being invited for a private meeting with the Prime Minister at the House of Commons or being informed by telephone.
However much the sacked ministers of the Thatcher and Major era must have hated being trapped on camera at such painful moments, there was an art to the shouted question. Instead of deploying the macho line “Have you been sacked?” the doorstep mob changed tactics on the advice of Joy Johnson, a former ITN producer, who was a Downing Street regular and awarded the accolade of chief shouter.
In Margaret Thatcher’s reshuffle of July 1989, Ms Johnson tried shouting the less threatening question “Are you happy?” as each minister emerged from the No.10 front door. She thought their answers would give a better clue as to whether they had been sacked or promoted.
On this occasion the late Nicholas Ridley was the first to emerge and he responded “Yes, I’m always happy.” Later it was announced Ridley had been moved from environment to trade and industry.
Chris Patten, who took over at environment, smiled broadly as he too delivered the appropriate answer: “Yes, I’m always happy.” Having heard he had just won promotion to the cabinet as Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer was word perfect for Ms Johnson, replying “I’m always happy.”
But when Kenneth Baker, then education secretary, left No.10 he replied less convincingly: “Yes, it is a nice day.” The Downing Street pack knew instantly that Baker had not got the cabinet job he had been hoping for and he was in fact moved sideways and appointed party chairman.
The most poignant moment was the departure of John Moore, who was sacked from his job as social security secretary. Ms Johnson shouted: “Have you got a job?” and Moore replied: “I’m going to enjoy myself with my family” – an answer that entered political folklore.
Perhaps the abiding lesson of cabinet reshuffles is that they can become a make-or-break moment for a Prime Minister. Lamont retaliated after his humiliation in 1993 with an excoriating resignation statement in which he accused Major and his government of giving “the impression of being in office but not in power” – not unlike Geoffrey Howe’s statement in the autumn of 1990 which precipitated the fall of Margaret Thatcher.
In his final years in office Tony Blair tried desperately to use reshuffles to re-establish his authority but they became so frequent that they ended up destabilising his government.
Blair’s last and final reshuffle in May 2006 was another salutary lesson for David Cameron. Although he did not quite equal the savagery of Harold Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives when seven cabinet ministers were sacked in 1962, Blair changed thirteen members of his cabinet, several of whom were dismissed.
Margaret Beckett became Foreign Secretary to the great disappointment of Jack Straw who was made Leader of the House; John Reid was appointed Home Secretary in place of an aggrieved Charles Clarke who returned to the backbenches; Alastair Darling was switched to trade and industry in place of Alan Johnson who was moved to education and skills; and the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was stripped of his ministerial responsibilities.
Within a year of his much-ridiculed reshuffle – dubbed “Nightmare of Downing Street” by the Daily Telegraph – Blair had been ousted himself...a reminder that a reshuffle is not always a political lifeline.
Illustrations: The Guardian 28.5.1993; The Sun, 28.5.1993; The Independent, 6.5.2006