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Release of MT's private files for 1985 - (4) September 1985 reshuffle

Big changes to the government line-up duly followed, including a new Home Secretary.

Reshuffles were among MT's least favourite aspects of the premiership, a cross between jigsaw-making and surgery conducted with minimal anaesthetic


Robin Butler's note of a "Second reading" discussion of the reshuffle, 23 May 1985

Among the papers we are releasing is the fullest surviving file for any reshuffle in the Thatcher period (THCR 1/14/14), detailing the process by which it was done and the recommendations received from the close circle consulted – principally the Chief Whip and Willie Whitelaw, but also particular trusted colleagues and officials such as Norman Tebbit and Bernard Ingham.

The bad politics of summer 1985 lends the reshuffle something of the flavour of an earlier one, that of September 1981. Both were fightback operations, but they differed in one big way. Whereas in 1981 MT promoted ideological soulmates to cabinet positions, this time she brought forward colleagues favoured for their skills in ‘presentation’, many of whom were not of her way of thinking at all. Some part of this can be explained by the pool of talent from which she was constrained to draw, but not all. Baker, Clarke and MacGregor entered the cabinet, Moore and Parkinson did not.

In the junior ranks two future party leaders joined the government for the first time: John Major was promoted from the Whips' Office to DHSS, Michael Howard went to DTI.


The first step seems to have been a quiet supper in the flat at No.10 on Thursday 23 May, attended by Wakeham and Whitelaw. We know of it because Robin Butler prepared her a note for the meeting (22 May) and later recorded conclusions. It might seem odd that a senior official played a role in this most political of activities, but of course the business of changing office holders inherently involved the government machine and he was No.10’s link to the Palace.

The best way to follow the story from there is to read the file chronologically, but the gist is easiest to convey by topic.

  • The scale of the reshuffle was constrained by the concern that it would seem a panic measure. Harold Macmillan’s 1962 “Night of the Long Knives” was invoked at several points and for once as something more than a leader writer's lazy parallel. One of Macmillan's victims, Harold Watkinson wrote MT a letter of extraordinary rudeness in an attempt to block the return of Cecil Parkinson (25 Aug). Even its author called the letter “a bit beastly” and it is certainly likely to have shocked MT. She did not reply.
  • Equally, to be effective there had to be some big changes – old faces departing, new ones coming in, and quite possibly changes at the very top too, in the big three jobs (Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary). It looks like MT kept her thinking on this last point very much to herself, just as she had when she thought of making Cecil Parkinson Foreign Secretary after the 1983 General Election.
  • The removal of Gummer as party chairman and his replacement by Tebbit was a key element from the first, and had been planned since September 1984. Quite possibly the Brighton Bomb held back the change, because Tebbit’s recovery took a long time. Gummer had never been intended to be chairman at the time of the next election.
  • MT had made some promises to colleagues which constrained her – ‘commitments’ to use Butler’s term. For example, she had promised Lawson she would move Peter Rees from his job at Chief Secretary, though there is no sign of a commitment to consult the Chancellor as to Rees’s replacement. One suspects that ministers extracting such promises were playing a risky game because she did not much like giving them and would exact a price. She had promised Havers the woolsack in succession to Hailsham, but hesitated to honour it because the change would have involved a by-election in Havers’ Wimbledon seat – and when the switch came after the 1987 General Election, Havers’ tenure was painfully short.
  • There is no strong sense from the file that Cecil Parkinson was expected to return. There was a lot of newspaper speculation on this point, partly because MT had praised him as ‘outstanding’ in a bruising tv interview with David Frost on 7 June, but this was in response to a direct question which she could hardly have answered otherwise. At no point was his name central to the planning – in fact almost the reverse, when he is being talked of, there is a struggle to see where he might go. Back to DTI? Obvious problems with that, as Wakeham noted. No clear role emerged. There were certainly concerns that the Keays scandal would revive, because a book by her was known to be on the way. MT ticked and underlined a comment by Stephen Sherbourne on 22 Aug: “I fear the reappointment of CP would be a high risk strategy”. Late in the planning process (27 Aug) Tebbit wrote her supporting Parkinson’s return, though again without a role to suggest. By that stage MT had probably decided firmly against.
  • Many moves for Heseltine were mooted – possibly down, to Employment (Wakeham/Whitelaw), DHSS (Sherbourne) or Energy (Tebbit), or sideways to DTI (Wolfson). There is no indication whether MT was tempted by this thought.
  • A move for Fowler was sufficiently well trailed for MT to have felt the need to tell him that he wasn’t being moved, Havers also.
  • MT wanted Gowrie to take over from Keith Joseph at Education, the latter to become a minister without portfolio. Most of her advisers would have preferred Joseph to leave the government altogether, but there were evident sensitivities for MT. Gowrie refused the job and himself resigned, to her enduring dismay.
  • ‘Presentation’ bulked large at every stage. The goal was to promote ministers to make the government’s case – Baker and Clarke especially – even if, in MT’s eyes, that tilted the balance of the cabinet away from people she was closest to politically. There is still some mystery about this though, because the party left had no monopoly of presentational skills in her eyes. While it is no great surprise that Parkinson did not return, finally, why was John Moore left out? One can ask the same question about appointments in the lower ranks of the government too. It is almost as if a generation of talented younger Conservatives who came into politics under Heath had reached maturity and she felt she could not justly or safely leave them out.
  • Late in the day, apparently when she was staying at Scotney at the end of August, she decided that the reshuffle should be accompanied by changes in the machinery of government to create a more powerful and enterprise-oriented Department of Employment. Officials hurriedly consulted as to what this would mean in practice. Presumably at that point she hit on the idea that Lord Young should take the job, with Ken Clarke his deputy in the Commons.

LEON BRITTAN: why was he moved from the Home Office?

She probably decided to move Brittan from the Home Office at some point in August, but before Scotney: she crossed through his name and put Hurd in its place on a document sent by the Chief Whip on 31 July and discussed on 22 Aug. What does the file tell us of her thinking?

Moving one of the big three ministers defined this as a major reshuffle, and she certainly seems to have wanted that. Whatever their merits as ministers, Howe, Lawson and Brittan were none of them star performers in the presentation stakes, particularly on tv. A former editor of Punch quietly advising MT, William Davis - whose opinion she evidently valued - summed up her top team as “grey, dull, uninspiring, self-righteous and smug” (Aug 17). In her rather politer style she seems to have taken his point. There is an undated note in which she scribbled the initials of Brittan's successor and chose her own word for the top three:

D.H. [Douglas Hurd] One of top three. Look ‘tired’

The same note talks of a “New Look”. Probably this note dates from the end of the whole process, because it relates essentially to how she wants to present the reshuffle to the press.

There is a second undated note, hurriedly written in her hand, which also seems to relate to press handling. Internal evidence gives us a firm date at least – it must have been written on Sunday 1 September because it refers to “announcements tomorrow evening”. At a guess these are jotted notes for or possibly on a phone conversation with Bernard Ingham, because the opening lines “Cecil not returning. Enterprise & employment” anticipate the briefing he gave to the press on Sunday evening, designed to get the Parkinson story out of the way before the reshuffle itself on the Monday. (The terms of that briefing are recorded in a lobby note dated 2 September, released for the first time from the Ingham papers.)

This note also includes something odd - the words '13 yrs old', bearing no obvious relation to anything else recorded there. Is this some reference to scandal about Brittan?

We know that the Cabinet Office has recently found papers dating from June 1984 – not yet released to the public but studied by MT's authorised biographer Charles Moore – showing she was aware of accusations made against Brittan at that point. She clearly dismissed them as false and No.10 briefed the press as such, clearly with her authority. Would she have jotted something down about this 15 months later, in a document giving her line to the press? It is implausible.

So what do the words refer to? Perhaps she was noting some point about machinery of government, because the words ‘Enterprise & employment’ must refer to that topic and many changes to the machine were made under Heath after the U-turn in 1972, 13 years earlier.

Or did she and Ingham discuss other stories in the press on the coming day, actual or potential, and she noted parenthetically something about that? It is the kind of conversation she could have had with her Press Secretary. There certainly were 13 year olds in the press at this time, because three of the survivors of the Manchester air disaster on 22 Aug were that age and their stories, quite tragic ones, had featured in newspapers and on tv many times over the intervening ten days. Quite a coincidence, and more than that, MT met them all in person when she visited Wythenshawe Hospital the evening of the accident. Ingham might well have briefed her what was happening to them. But in the absence of further evidence, really one is only guessing.

There is a fragment on her view of Brittan in Woodrow Wyatt’s diary dated Apr 1986 (v1, p 125). Wyatt was a close confidante of MT's at this point and a credible source for her thinking. She told him that she had over-promoted Brittan, that he was too young and inexperienced for such a job as the Home Office. Papers released from her 1983 files show that Brittan had not been her first choice for the job - she had intended to make him Environment Secretary, with Geoffrey Howe Home Secretary. That plan fell through when Cecil Parkinson’s affair ruled him out for the Foreign Office.  


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