Greasy Pole: Reshuffle – Who? When? Why?

We do not need to be diverted but recently Vernon Bogdanor, Research Professor at King’s College, shared his thoughts on the matter of David Cameron looking for a way to revive his government’s sagging fortunes: “David Cameron is an admirer of Harold Macmillan. There is quite a lot of similarity in that both went to Eton and Oxford”. And the point of this: “Like Macmillan, Cameron’s lustre is fading. He too faces grave economic problems allied to failing support in the polls and is believed to be planning to revitalise his administration with a reshuffle”. And the eminent professor’s advice: “It is important that Cameron does not let the legacy of the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ inhibit his own political calculations”. There are some key words in this passage: ‘grave economic problems;’ ‘failing support;’ ‘revitalise;’ ‘reshuffle;’ because reshuffling a government – throwing out some of its prominent members, shifting those that remain around between jobs and filling the resulting gaps with hungry cubs from the back benches – is well established political strategy, even though it has never produced an enduring remedy for any perceived problems.


The Night of the Long Knives was the occasion in 1934 when the Nazis protected their recently won victory by wiping out a clutch of restless brutes in their paramilitary wing, theSturmabteilung, including its leader Ernst Roehm. Bogdanor was warning Cameron against employing rather less bloody but nevertheless markedly ruthless methods familiar to political leaders in this country. An example is provided by Clement Attlee, the first post-war Prime Minister, who rode to power on a great wave of underestimation in his party. “And a little mouse will lead them” was how Hugh Dalton, Attlee’s future Chancellor of the Exchequer, had greeted his rise in 1935 to the Labour leadership. In fact, the little mouse in Number Ten was quick to sack Dalton when he unwisely leaked some minor detail of his 1947 Budget to a crafty reporter. “Perfect ass,” was how Attlee dismissed Dalton, “His trouble was that he liked to talk, and he always liked to have a secret to confide”. Little more was heard of Dalton and his ambitions to lead his party. Another of Attlee’s ministers (who resigned but was never sacked by him) described his style as “…the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match”. But that idyllic vision was not apparent to John Belcher, junior minister at the Board of Trade, who was caught out taking what were regarded as bribes (but which would hardly rate as such in the present state of politics) for fixing governmental favours. Belcher was found to have accepted a suit, a cigarette case, a holiday in Margate (yes, Margate) from a fraudster and undischarged bankrupt. Attlee sacked him on the spot and launched a searching enquiry into the matter.


The wife of another ambitious minnow was furious when her husband was called to Number Ten in expectation of a glamorous promotion only to be told to clear his desk, but that meanwhile as he had an engineering qualification he might have a look at the troublesome family vacuum cleaner.  Another hopeful, John Parker, was similarly disappointed but did not help his case by gasping, “But why, Prime Minister?” which drew the barb: “Afraid you’re not up to it”. Behind Attlee and his abrasive style were some unusually powerful government figures such as Ernest Bevin, Stafford Cripps and Herbert Morrison whose experience of running affairs during the war did not make them any more humane, or successful, in controlling the inherent aggressiveness of the system. Among their priorities was the conscription of those hopeful people, to forget the promises for the safer, freer world which was to be built from the terror and destruction of 1939-45 and go to fight for the interests of British capitalism in Korea, Kenya, Cyprus…


It was one such conflict – the disastrous invasion of Suez in 1956 – that effectively raised Harold Macmillan to the position of Prime Minister. This was the time when, we were told, we had “never had it so good” such that a Tory election win in 1959 brought about the reign of somebody known as Supermac. But then came the predictable decline as the economy entered a less easy spell, raising questions about Macmillan’s durability. In America, the election of the youthfully virile JFK made the Tories seem older and more frail. Then came the crucial blow, when the safe seat of Orpington in Kent was lost to the Liberal Party in a by-election. Nothing could be more calculated to stimulate subversive restlessness among the back benches and there were insistent calls for Supermac to stand down. Although Macmillan nourished the reputation of a Gentleman To His Fingertips (Eton, Balliol, Grenadier Guards), he decided to be so ungentlemanly as to pin the blame for the rampant chaos onto his ministers, in particular his long-standing friend and enduringly loyal and willing Chancellor of the Exchequer, Selwyn Lloyd. He plotted a reshuffle but this was hastened by a leak in the Daily Mail, so it was necessary to call Lloyd to Number Ten to tell him he was to be sacked (Macmillan preferred “replaced”).On the following day another six members of the Cabinet were fired, then nine junior ministers. Surprisingly the Tory Party rode out the expected storm and Macmillan, resigning through health problems, was allowed to influence the choice of his successor .

Douglas Home

This was the aristocratic Old Etonian land owner Alec Douglas Home who fulfilled all expectations  by being unable to make any headway against the day-to-day pressures of capitalist politics and lost the 1964 election to Harold Wilson, the ex-grammar schoolboy with the thick Yorkshire accent. It was an instructive, if unedifying, episode. So now, almost fifty years after Macmillan and his Long Knives and seventy years after Attlee and his ruthless cosh, can it be that our “progress” is so meagre that it must be measured by an eminent professor speculating about the application of some stale, infected poultice to the chronic ulcers of capitalist society and its politicians? Those who claim to instruct us seem to be unaware that Cameron and his like offer nothing different or more searching or hopeful than a harking back to their own dismal failures. This is, simply, not the best we humans can do and the urgency for us is to demand better for ourselves as a revolutionary class.

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