It is easy to botch reshuffles, although it is unusual to do so twice in succession, as Tony Blair has now managed. But when they change their governments, all PMs have a problem with their colleagues’ sensitivities. Once a shuffle is approaching, press speculation will rampage so that within hours half the Cabinet is feeling as secure as one of Henry VIII’s wives. To prevent that, No. 10 spokesmen usually steer the press towards the real victims.
Prime Ministers also convince themselves that this is in the departing colleagues’ interests. They decide that it is better to be given notice that one is going than to be subjected to a brutal shock. They have a point. It must be ghastly to be summoned to Downing Street and removed from office like a sacked City trader, escorted away by the security guards who have already emptied the contents of the desk drawers into a bin bag.
That said, consider the alternative: the minister who reads that in a few weeks’ time he will be invited to No. 10 where he will have to listen to stumbling sentences of embarrassed, disingenuous prime ministerial consolation and thanks, before being hurled from the Tarpeian Rock. During the interim, the civil servants will continue to lubricate the doomed minister’s self-importance. He will still be addressed as Secretary of State and the driver will still arrive on time. But everyone will know that they are taking part in a charade. As ministers are, he will inevitably be drawn into discussions on future plans, even though he and his glazed-eyed audience know that he will have no role in them.
Andrew Smith had to endure all that for more than two months. His execution, originally set for late July, was postponed because of Peter Mandelson. He could not make up his mind whether to go to Brussels or to press Tony Blair to bring him back to the Cabinet. As one Downing Street official put it, Mandy was acting like a drama queen. The PM had decided that the reshuffle should take place while Parliament was sitting, so Mr Mandelson’s amateur dramatics gave Andrew Smith another few weeks in office.
At that time, there seemed every reason to think that Mr Smith would be pathetically grateful for the small mercy. He appeared to have as much capacity for self-assertion as Bill Sikes’s dog. An MP for 17 years and a minister for seven, Mr Smith had never expressed an original thought or uttered a memorable phrase. His idea of being a minister was to bore for Britain at the Dispatch Box, doggedly grinding through his civil servants’ prose, never saying anything which was not in his brief; eventually wearing down his opponents by sheer tedium. This was a man who seemed to express all the music in his soul by being a dull, dutiful nullity.
As such, he was doubly useful to his master. He would never embarrass the government, and as soon as his place was needed for a more fashionable politician, he could be expected to ratify his obscurity by his departure. Yet, given enough provocation, the most unlikely worm will turn. Eventually, Andrew Smith discovered his pride and told Tony Blair to stuff it. In so doing, he also led Mr Blair into a lie, for the PM told Mr Smith that he wanted him to stay. That was nonsense. Mr Smith was always going. But it is interesting to observe how glibly and easily our Prime Minister lies these days.
He may have been encouraged to do so by another disordered personality: not a drama queen, but a drama empress. Gordon Brown is girt for war. Though hardly Roland’s horn, Mr Smith’s final plaintive worm-notes did help to summon Mr Brown to the battlefield. Not for the first time, the Chancellor is feeling resentful and betrayed. He believes that Tony Blair had agreed to step aside this year and to allow him, at last, to enjoy his rightful inheritance. But he is increasingly persuaded that Mr Blair has no intention of standing down for some years and that, when he does, he will do everything to ensure that Gordon Brown does not succeed him. Hence the imbroglio over Alan Milburn’s return to the Cabinet.
Over the past few months, a number of possible rivals to Mr Brown have emerged: David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, Peter Hain, John Reid, Jack Straw. Yet none of them is really convincing; they all appear to lack some prime ministerial dimension. Mr Milburn might be a different matter. It is not immediately clear why this should be so, for his record of achievement hardly makes him an outstanding candidate. As a Cabinet minister, he performed adequately, but there were no dramatic successes. Mr Milburn seems happy in his own skin, which may explain why he finds it easy to take pleasure in the products of a relatively small degree of intellectual exertion. But he has an attractive personality. Unlike most of his colleagues, he can make New Labour clichés sound thoughtful. Mr Brown has identified him as a danger on the horizon. That may explain Tony Blair’s eagerness to bring him back.
There is a further factor. The PM no longer has a choice. The Brownites tried to obstruct his plans for Mr Milburn by leaking them. If the PM now fails to carry them through, he will be seen to have backed down and will lose authority. There is no alternative; he will have to snub Gordon Brown. There is also a difficulty with John Prescott. At present, the chairman of the Labour party is one Ian McCartney. In his Who’s Who entry he boasts of coming from working-class stock and of leading a paper boys’ strike when he was only 14. His proletarian credentials are indeed impeccable, which endears him to Mr Prescott.
But Mr McCartney is about 5ft tall. He has no neck and a Glaswegian accent so thick that he is unintelligible outside the central belt of Scotland. This may also endear him to John Prescott. A McCartney speech can make Mr Prescott sound like Demosthenes.
Tony Blair has no interest in prolier-than-thou contests. He would prefer a party chairman who could speak in the English suburbs without requiring simultaneous translation. The PM had intimated his intention to drop Mr McCartney. John Prescott complained. As a result, the Prime Minister will probably find a way to assuage Mr Prescott’s vanity and to prevent the emergence of a Brown-Prescott axis of enmity. Mr McCartney is likely to be given some other important-sounding post whose name he will be unable to pronounce, and which will not require him to appear on the media anywhere south of Airdrie.
The business of soothing vanities will irritate the PM. Earlier in the year he seemed prey to self-doubt. But his mood has been improved by his August holidays at the Palazzo Freebeesio among the international white trash: the only company he really enjoys these days. Mr Blair now seems to have convinced himself that he has great plans to modernise Britain, and that the only thing preventing him from implementing them is his incompetent and visionless colleagues. He has developed a Margaret Thatcher-like disdain for most of his Cabinet.
He should remember one thing. As her premiership went on, she had increasing difficulties with big-beast management. That helped to bring about her downfall. Even if he gets his way this week, the same fate could still overtake Mr Blair.