The Sunday Times - Comment

June 15, 2003

Comment: William Rees- Mogg:

The long knives flash again as panic reigns at No 10

It is not often that one has the opportunity to correct a misjudgment which is more than 40 years old. It must be even rarer to be able to make the correction in the same newspaper. On July 13, 1962, the day before my 34th birthday, Harold Macmillan dismissed seven members of his cabinet, including Lord Kilmuir, the long-standing conservative lord chancellor. He replaced them with younger men to rejuvenate his government. Macmillan was much distressed by the process of dismissing so many of his old colleagues; he found it so painful that he had to retreat to the lavatory which adjoins the Cabinet Room where he was physically sick. He became so confused that when Sir Gerald Kelly, president of the Royal Academy, called on a courtesy visit, the prime minister asked him to become president of the Board of Trade.

As a young man I naturally thought that the promotion of young men must be a good idea, particularly as the new members of the cabinet included a couple of my personal friends. I therefore wrote a laudatory article in The Sunday Times, arguing that this bold reshuffle would make the Macmillan administration more useful, up-to-date and modern. I soon found that I was the only person in the country who thought that, except the prime minister himself.

A few days later he congratulated me on being the only journalist to have understood his reshuffle; in truth, I was the only journalist to fall for his spin. Jeremy Thorpe, not yet leader of the Liberal party, made a more accurate comment: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life."

No prime minister since then has risked repeating the political disaster of Macmillan's night of the long knives. I suppose Tony Blair was only a nine-year-old when Macmillan made the last totally disastrous reshuffle. Yet he has repeated the double-headed mistake of panicking and of letting the public see his panic.

To be fair to Macmillan, Blair's reshuffle is much the worst of the two. It is, indeed, not so large, but it contains at least as many personal misjudgments. In each of the three main cabinet promotions the minister coming in is less capable than the one going out. Given a free choice, no judge of human potential would prefer Lord Falconer to Lord Irvine, John Reid to Alan Milburn or Peter Hain to Reid.

Nobody doubts that Charles Falconer is a more clubbable man than Derry Irvine. However, he is nothing like as forceful a personality. The prime minister has something of a weakness for bullies, which is usually a sign of a flawed temperament. Falconer is not one of them but, of the original band of new Labour brothers, Gordon Brown, Irvine, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson can all be regarded as bullies.

Irvine is an intellectual bully. He overawes people partly by his overbearing manner, but partly by his intellectual grip. Falconer is a much kindlier man and a persuasive speaker, but he has a less formidable intellect. No peer has ever been frightened of arguing against Falconer; it is no more frightening than an afternoon's tennis in Hampstead. Irvine turns it into the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Milburn knew a good deal about health and had formed a policy that bore some relation to Blair's original 1997 promise to reform the National Health Service. Reid has little or no experience of the problems of the health service. He is the government's enforcer and pops from place to place whenever there is a job of enforcing to do. At health, a clever bully has replaced a minister in charge of his brief.

For some reason Blair likes to promote ministers who have recently mishandled their previous portfolios. Reid comes fresh from his gaffe about "rogue elements" in the intelligence service, which made the still unresolved Iraq war issues even harder to handle. Hain comes from his disastrous mismanagement of the Brussels convention, which has left many critical issues to be reversed -- or left to rot -- at the forthcoming intergovernmental conference.

Hain is also the inventor of no fewer than three fraudulent and anti- democratic arguments against a British referendum on the European constitution. He is a less capable leader of the House than his two predecessors, less intellectual than Reid and less charming than Robin Cook.

To all appearances the cabinet now is weaker than it was a week ago. It appears to have been cobbled together. Yet the constitutional changes are far more important and even less defensible. With no public discussion and no consultation, Scotland, Wales, the judiciary, the legal system and the House of Lords have all been thrown into the pot.

The proposed reconstruction of the legal system is outrageous, not because its proposals are unthinkable but because they have not been properly discussed. Irvine's letter of resignation implies that he is critical of the proposals in their present form and fears their impact on the independence of the judiciary. Falconer comes into office with the crippling presumption that he is pre-committed to these first thoughts from Downing Street. He has been deprived of the assumption that he is his own man, coming to these arguments with an open mind.

So little consideration had been given that it was announced that the office of lord chancellor was abolished, only for a new lord chancellor to sit on the woolsack the following day. Similarly, the Scottish Office took down its nameplate, only to put it up again. Constitutional changes should be prepared carefully, thoughtfully, openly, with long public discussion. They do not belong simply to the prime minister of the day. Least of all should they emerge as an unconsidered consequence of a cabinet reshuffle.

These are not issues that can have only one answer. The lord chancellor ought to continue to act as the link between parliament and the legal system, or he should not. The procedure of the House of Lords should continue to follow its existing model or it should not. Relations between the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and Westminster should continue to be mediated by the Scottish and Welsh offices, or they should not. Britain should adopt the United States model of a supreme court or we should not. These are matters on which a prime minister may have his own opinions, but his personal opinions are not decisive.

Macmillan may have made a blunder by his night of the long knives, but he was operating inside well established conventions, even if he was pushing them too far. The prime minister is entitled to form and change his administration. He is entitled to sack members of his cabinet, although he may rightly be criticised for doing so. He is entitled to replace men of ability with other men of less abilities. He can be criticised for that.

There is not even a clause in a constitution which says that a prime minister should not panic if he begins to fear that his power is slipping away from him. But panic does undermine public confidence in government.

Yet the prime minister is himself only a creature of the constitution. Blair is the temporary holder of a comparatively modern office which has been shaped by a succession of predecessors, from Sir Robert Walpole down to John Major. He holds his office only because he is the leader of the party which has a majority in the House of Commons.

That party's majority does not come from its own special grace, but simply by the choice of the people. The British constitution is part statutory and part conventional; it allows the prime minister very wide powers, but even those powers are not unlimited. He is neither a president nor a dictator.

There has been an unjustified assumption behind this reshuffle that the prime minister has a free and capricious power to alter important parts of the constitution just because he decides to do so -- affecting Scotland, Wales, the judiciary, the lord chancellor, the House of Lords. He treats negotiations on the European constitution in the same arbitrary way.

This has to be stopped -- even if the prime minister has to be stopped at the same time.