29 JULY 1989, Page 6


Not so much the Titanic, more a Morning Cloud


Listening to Labour politicians being interviewed on the news programmes in the immediate aftermath of the Cabinet reshuffle, I wondered who would be the first to use that old phrase about rearrang- ing the deck chairs on the Titanic. Not Mr John Prescott, who, as a former P & 0 steward, knows that the arrangement of deck chairs can be a very serious matter for those concerned. In the end it was Mr John Smith, indulging in some rather Bennish high-mindedness about the importance of policies rather than personalities.

Whenever a politician with a job (even a shadow job) makes this sort of remark, you wish that the interviewer would then ask him whether he would be perfectly content to hand over his job tomorrow to anyone who would follow the same set of policies. Personalities do matter, and policies are not things like computer programmes which can just function on their own. Policies can be implemented well or badly; they are made and remade as they are implemented; and however ideologically compatible they may be with one another, they are in practice competing fiercely with one another for funds. Perhaps it is so long now since Mr Smith had to sit at the Cabinet table and defend (or even calcu- late) the costs of his policies that he has forgotten what it is like.

And yet, and yet . . . somewhere in the Labour Party's studiously unexcited re- sponse to the Cabinet changes there lurk one or two grains of truth. The most spectacular change, the promotion of Mr John Major to Foreign Secretary, is diffi- cult to interpret in policy terms because Mr Major is not known ever to have had a single thought in his head about foreign policy. He is the sort of person who is first-rate at working to a brief; but whether he works to the one Mrs Thatcher gives him, or to the one he gets from his officials at the Foreign Office, remains to be seen. Talk about his leadership potential has so dominated the discussion of this appoint- ment that the policy question here — the question of Mrs Thatcher's hostility to Sir Geoffrey Howe's policies — has been shunted into the background. Europe is the essential contentious issue; but since the European election it has become such a politically awkward one that a change of policy cannot be publicly advertised even if it is intended.

There are other reasons too why this week's carve-up lacks the excitement which its sheer scale would otherwise seem to merit. The most exciting reshuffles in the past have been the ones which seemed to be taking place on the Bounty rather than the Titanic: Macmillan's in 1962, or even Mrs Thatcher's in 1981, when Lord Soames, Sir Ian Gilmour and Lord Thor- neycroft were ejected and Jim Prior was salted away in Northern Ireland. No one is threatening now to have Mrs Thatcher taken below decks in a straitjacket; this is a fact which should cause less comfort than it apparently does to the Labour Party, who ought to realise that fighting on the bridge would be more damaging to the Tories than an occasional brush with an iceberg.

Does this mean that the Prime Minister has finally succeeded in filling her Cabinet with robotic Thatcherite clones? The answer is obviously 'no'. On the contrary, the only perfect specimen of a new model Thatcherite that she had in her Cabinet, Mr John Moore, has been kicked out. The three remaining ministers who are closest to her in their general political outlook, Messrs Lawson, Ridley and Parkinson, are senior figures who cannot be easily bullied. The charge is often made that the Prime Minister runs her administration by pres- idential decree, that she ignores the advice of her ministers and treats the Cabinet as a rubber stamp. It is true that the Cabinet room is less a place of deliberation now than it used to be; but the deliberations have been shifted one stage further back, to a network of cabinet committees, and to operate the network Mrs Thatcher does have to rely on what is in effect the consensus of her senior ministers. It is their complicity, rather than her diktat, which in the end keeps the other ministers in line.

Most of her ministers are Thatcherites by career rather than vocation: they owe her not so much their convictions as their CVs. This has been true for several years now, but it has become even more striking this time round. If anyone has cause to rejoice apart from the newly appointed ministers, it is Mr Edward Heath, whose prescience and skill at talent-spotting are still being confirmed. Mrs Thatcher's admi- nistration now includes a former head of Mr Heath's private office (Mr MacGre- gor), Mr Heath's PPS and the man who organised his leadership campaign in 1974- 5 (Mr Baker), a member of Mr Heath's think-tank and the head of his political office (Mr Waldegrave), a Heath protégé who was made a party vice-chairman in 1972 and organised 'Christians for Europe' in the European referendum (Mr Gum- mer), and the man whom Mr Heath appointed as the youngest ever director of the Conservative Research Department in 1974 (Mr Chris Patten), not to mention his political secretary (Mr Douglas Hurd).

These components of the Government are not just remnants or bits of recycled material. The new, young, caring and televisually acceptable face of Thatcherism is made up of people such as Chris Patten and William Waldegrave, who were so strongly identified with a Heath-Gilmour- Pym tradition that in 1981 they were willing to publish a pamphlet, entitled Changing Gear, which openly criticised Mrs Thatcher's dryasdust policies. And even those rising ministers who have been loyally dry on economic policies, men such as Norman Lamont and John Major, have remained distinctly damp on social issues. There is a younger generation of purer Thatcherites (John Redwood, for example, or Michael Forsyth) lower down the lad- der; but Mrs Thatcher will have to last a full fourth term before they can lay even a fingertip on the hem of her mantle.

In the short term, therefore, it looks as if Thatcherism has failed one crucial test. It has failed to convince enough people that its social policies are of a piece with its economic ones, and that it is possible to be 'caring' towards people by promoting their independence from government direction and government subsidy. Over the next two years an increasing flow of subsidies and interventions will be justified (not least by Mr Baker's silver tongue) and explained away, within the Conservative Party, not as a change of policy but as an improve- ment in public relations. The Government has quite a lot of time, and a huge amount of money. The Labour Party may be snooty about deck chairs; but for the time being I would still back a transatlantic liner to beat a tramp steamer, however brightly refitted.