One of David Cameron’s last decisions as prime minister was to get the brass doorbell of No. 10 cleaned. I know this from my friend and Northamptonshire neighbour, Kevin, a brilliant plasterer and decorator, who has been working for years on restoring the fabric of the house in Downing Street. Cameron had noted that the doorbell had gone green and asked Kevin to deal with the problem, so Kevin cleaned it himself.
It’s not as if the bell is often used, for the door tends to open magically when any important visitor arrives. It behaves like an automatic door, but it’s really opened by an unseen doorkeeper whenever the visitor appears on the threshold. I’ve always wondered how the doorkeeper knows when to open the door, because he presumably can’t see the guest or hear him or her arrive; I suppose he must be alerted from someone outside with a walkie-talkie. But the bell features in most official photographs of the prime minister and his VIP guests, so Cameron could have felt that its cleanness was an issue of national prestige.
In any case, the front door has been doing a lot of opening and shutting lately while Theresa May has been forming her new cabinet. I would like to know what prime ministers say to MPs during these encounters. They wouldn’t have any problem when they are offering them jobs, for giving good news is easy. But sacking is much more difficult, and Mrs May fired 11 members of Cameron’s last cabinet. This may not be as many as the judges fired by President Erdogan of Turkey, more than could be fitted into the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden; but it is still a dramatic number by prime ministerial standards.
The real reason for such a sacking is normally either ‘I don’t like you’ or ‘I don’t think you’re any good’, either of which is difficult to say. Sometimes the victim of a sacking may try to relieve the discomfort of its perpetrator, as Nicky Morgan reportedly helped Mrs May when she was preparing to fire her as Secretary of State for Education. ‘I’m going to have to…’ started Mrs May; but then Mrs Morgan interrupted ‘Let me go?’
To Michael Gove Mrs May was more direct. ‘I’ve been talking to colleagues, and the importance of loyalty is something on people’s minds,’ she is reported to have said, ‘I’m not saying there is no way back or that you’ll never serve in my government, but it would perhaps help if you could demonstrate that loyalty from the back benches.’ That was clear enough. But I wonder whether she dared to talk to John Whittingdale about his unwitting relationship with a prostitute or to Stephen Crabb about his alleged sex texts?
Not all of Mrs May’s sackees were made to run the gauntlet of the excitable press pack in Downing Street. She broke the bad news to Gove in her House of Commons office, and to George Osborne in one of their interconnected residences, where nobody could see either of them arrive or leave. That was nice of her, but it can never be easy, whatever the circumstances.
I have been sacked quite often, usually by the Daily Telegraph. Its former editor, Max Hastings, had an endearing way of revealing his real thoughts. ‘We don’t feel your column is going very well,’ he said, ‘and I have been thinking about ending it. But I had thought of sacking Auberon Waugh, and that would have been a mistake. I wouldn’t want to make a mistake with you, so I’ll reflect on it for a while.’ He reflected, and after a fortnight of reflection concluded that sacking me would not have been a mistake after all.
One of Hastings’s successors, Martin Newland, fired me from another column with a letter giving two reasons — ‘primarily my shrinking budget but also partly because I want to afford myself some leeway in making some alterations to the tone of the comment section’. In reality, there is almost never more than one actual reason for doing anything, and Mr Newland’s second reason sounded more plausible than his first. He would have carried more conviction if he had given one reason instead of two. But this wouldn’t have had to be the true reason. As my grandmother used to say, ‘I won’t give you my real reason, but I will give you another that will do just as well.’