Commentary

Key personal & political events

1981 Sep 15 Tu
Commentary (The Times)

Conservative Party: "Three Cabinet ministers sacked" (reshuffle) [purging the wets]

Document type: commentary
Document kind: Article
Venue: -
Source: Julian Haviland, The Times , 15 Sep 1981 (p1)
Journalist: -
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Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 1p
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Three Cabinet ministers sacked

Prior moved

Mr James Prior animatedly telling reporters nothing at all in Downing Street. Photograph by John Mannine [caption to large photo; omitted]

By Julian Haviland, Political Editor

In what must be her last big effort to build a Cabinet in tune with her economic thinking, the Prime Minister yesterday dropped three Cabinet ministers, including the hostile Sir Ian Gilmour, Lord Privy Seal, and promoted several ministers and back-benchers on whose support she has relied since becoming party leader in 1975.

Mr Norman Tebbit was promoted to the sensitive post of Secretary of State for Employ- ment, which Mr James Prior was so reluctant to leave.

Mr Prior agreed to serve as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland after being dissuaded by his family and friends from leaving office.

Four other Cabinet ministers were switched between posts; in all, 10 of the 22 Cabinet places were affected.

Lord Soames, former Lord President of the Council, after an exceptionally long, varied, and distinguished political career, resigned at Mrs Margaret Thatcher's request, and so did Mr Mark Carlisle, Secretary of State for Education and Science, who goes to the back benches.

Disagreed with economic policy

Mr Carlisle, in his resignation letter, promised loyal support to the Conservative Party. Lord Soames's brief letter hid his disappointment. Sir Ian Gilmour published a blistering statement, saying he had been dismissed because he disagreed with the Government's economic policy, and making plain his intention to campaign in the party and the country for a change of course.

Sir Ian, who had read in recent weeks enough inspired forecasts of his fate to write his resignation letter some weeks ago, said that his dismissal was perfectly natural and not unwelcome.

"Every prime minister has to reshuffle from time to time. It does no harm to throw the occasional man overboard, but it does not do much good if you are steering full speed ahead for the rocks. That is what the Government is now doing."

The other two new members of the Cabinet, apart from Mr Tebbit, are Lady Young, who takes Lord Soames's place as Leader of the House of Lords and Minister in charge of the Civil Service, and Mr Nigel Lawson.

Lady Young, who learnt her politics in local government in Oxford in the 1960s is a deputy chairman of the Conservative Party and a trusted associate of the Prime Minister. She is the first woman leader of the House of Lords.

Mr Lawson, former Financial Secretary to the Treasury, becomes Secretary of State for Energy. His place at the Treasury is taken by Mr Nicholas Ridley who, like Mr Lawson, is a convinced monetarist.

The consensus among Conservatives last night was that the Prime Minister, while shifting the centre of gravity of the Government perceptibly to the right, has strengthened her own position so far as this was in her power.

Whether even now she commands a majority in her own Cabinet remains in doubt. But she has found room in it for three totally loyal colleagues, each of them in their way strong politicians, with a fourth devotee as party chairman.

At the same time, the weightiest Cabinet critic of Treasury. policies, Mr Prior, by at first defying Mrs Thatcher to move him and then deciding to fall in with her plans, must for the moment have become a diminished force.

Sir Ian Gilmour, whose outspokenness raises the question of how he felt able to remain In office for so long, said last night on BBC radio that there were still many people in the Cabinet who thought the same as he did.

So there are. But if there was any prospect of a gradual move this autumn towards reflationary policies, that prospect - in the view of those who would like this - has been pushed back for several months at least by the Prime Minister's firm self-assertion.

Among other changes, Mr David Howell is moved from Energy to be Secretary of State for Transport, a downward move although not so represented, and Mr Norman Fowler moves up from Transport to be Secretary of State for Health and Social Security.

Mr Patrick Jenkin, whom Mr Fowler replaces, becomes Secretary of State for Industry. His predecessor there, Sir Keith Joseph, becomes Secretary of State for Education and Science.

Mr Humphrey Atkins moves from the Northern Ireland Office to take Sir Ian Gilmour's post of Lord Privy Seal, the number two position at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mr Francis Pym, who remains Leader of the House of Commons, is given the new and more senior title of Lord President of the Council. His previous small office of Paymaster General goes to Mr Cecil Parkinson, the new chairman of the Conservative Party.

Mr Parkinson is the one complete surprise. He has caught Mrs Thatcher's eye as an active Minister of State at the Department of Trade, and replaces Lord Thorneycroft, aged 72, who wrote to the Prime Minister last month urging her to appoint a younger man. Unlike Lord Thorneycroft, Mr Parkinson, as a senior Minister, will attend all Cabinet meetings and receive all Cabinet papers, without formally being a member of the Cabinet.

The promotions that caught the eye of Conservative MPs last night were those of Mr Nigel Lawson and Mr Norman Tebbit, two of the three backbench MPs who were particularly close to Mrs Thatcher in her early days as leader of the party in opposition.

Mr Lawson, as a member of the Treasury team since May, 1979, has been regarded as the most convinced monetarist in the Government. If any Conservative is more convinced, it is probably Mr Jock Bruce-Gardyne, whose appointment as Minister of State at the Treasury is one of five or six further moves to be announced.

Mr Norman Tebbit will be the man to introduce a further Bill, in the next session of Parliament, to curb the powers of the trade unions, and as such will be closely watched.

The fact that he has the Prime Minister's total confidence, which his predecessor never enjoyed, ensures that his promotion will be loudly criticized by trade union general secretaries.

Mr Tebbit said on ITN's News at Ten last night that Mrs Thatcher had not given him a brief to "get tough with the unions", but perhaps a fresh approach was needed.

And on BBC television's Newsnight Mr Tebbit, a former airline pilot, said he was "a hawk, but not a kamikaze".

Of the four new Ministers, two, Mr William Shelton, who becomes Under-Secretary at Education, and Mr Iain Sproat, Under-Secretary at Trade, were described yesterday as long. term cronies of the Prime Minister.

The main drama of yesterday's calls at Downing Street concerned Mr James Prior. He went in early, by a back door, and was urged by the Prime Minister, in 45 minutes of discussion, to accept the Northern Ireland post.

She persuaded him that the job was vitally important and that she wanted a new man there to take, in time, a new political initiative.

For three or four hours, Mr Prior deliberated. He consulted Mr William Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, Mr Michael Jopling, the chief whip, and other friends, and he consulted his wife and four children.

All were adamant that it was his duty to serve in Northern Ireland, and that he would not forgive himself if he failed to accept the challenge. Decision made easier by Mrs Thatcher

When he returned and told the Prime Minister that he would accept, it must have been a relief to them both. Mrs Thatcher having observed Sir Ian Gilmour's response to dismissal may reflect that Mr Prior on the back benches would have had an even higher nuisance value.

As it is, she has avoided a potentially disastrous gulf between the left and right wings of the party.

Mr Prior's main concern, expressed often and publicly, was that by going to Belfast he would be removed from the main area of economic discussion in the Government. Mrs Thatcher made the decision easier for him by offering him, from the outset, the retention of his seat on the Cabinet's main economic committee, the E Committee, something that Mr Atkins did not have.

Mr Prior also secured the help of two valued colleagues. Lord Gowrie, his Minister of State at the Department of Employment, goes with him; and Mr Nicholas Scott, a Liberal Conservative, who held junior office at the Department of Employment briefly in 1974, also goes to the Northern Ireland Office as Under-Secretary of State.

In a statement last night, Mr Prior said: "I have always regarded it as my first duty in Politics to serve my country. This was my overriding consideration when the Prime Min- ister asked me to assume responsibility for Northern Ireland."

"After such a long stint in one area of policy it is obviously a wrench to leave it, but this is a new challenge and I am delighted to have such a strong and experienced ministerial team with me."

Mrs Peggy Fenner, MP for Rochester and Chatham, is brought into the Administration for the first time having, like Mr Nicholas Scott, last held office under Mr Edward Heath. She takes on the same job, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, that she held from 1972-74.

Mr Prior's wife, Jane, said last night: "Jim is obviously sad to leave his old job. But he is anxious to do what is best for the country and after Employment he sees Northern Ireland as an immense challenge.

"He does not regard it as promotion or demotion. It is simply something different which he intends to go at with all his customary hard work and enthusiasm."

"He is a man with great conciliatory abilities and persuasive powers as well as boundless energy and broad shoulders. He feels these might prove to be just the qualities that are needed to deal with Northern Ireland, let us hope so." <

FULL CABINET LIST

Mrs Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister

Mr William Whitelaw: Home Secretary

Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone: Lord Chancellor

Lord Carrington: Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Sir Geoffrey Howe: Chancellor of the Exchequer

Sir Keith Joseph: Secretary of State for Education and Science

Mr Francis Pym: Lord President of the Council, Leader of the Commons

Mr James Prior: Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

Mr John Nott: Secretary of State for Defence

Mr Peter Walker: Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

Mr Michael Heseltine: Secretary of State for the Environment

Mr George Younger: Secretary of State for Scotland

Mr Nicholas Edwards: Secretary of State for Wales

Mr Humphrey Atkins: Lord Privy Seal

Mr Patrick Jenkin: Secretary of State for Industry

Mr John Biffen: Secretary of State for Trade

Mr David Howell: Secretary of State for Transport

Mr Norman Fowler: Secretary of State for Social Services

Mr Leon Brittan: Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Lady Young: Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Leader of the House of Lords

Mr Nigel Lawson: Secretary of State for Energy

Mr Norman Tebbit: Secretary of State for Employment

Mr Cecil Parkinson: Paymaster General and Chairman of the Conservative Party (will attend Cabinet meetings)