When Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan sacked seven cabinet ministers on 13 July 1962, they were, as Roy Jenkins wrote, "axed like junior managers in an ailing company". Jeremy Thorpe, then leader of the Liberal Party, quipped: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life."
The most prominent casualty was Selwyn Lloyd, chancellor of the exchequer. Even though Lloyd was a close confidant of the prime minister, his dismissal came as a bolt from the blue. A guilt-ridden Macmillan later claimed the firings had been forced upon him, muttering about a conspiracy to divide the Conservative Party over the Common Market – which he wanted Britain to join.
Fifty-seven years later, one of the first acts of Boris Johnson, a Conservative prime minister determined to lead Britain out of the European Union, was to preside over the dismissal or resignation of 17 cabinet ministers. He replaced all three key office holders – chancellor, home secretary and foreign secretary – and appointed more ethnic minority ministers attending cabinet than any of his predecessors.
Such a radical restructure reflects a departure from historic prime ministerial norms. William Gladstone, as noted by Jenkins, himself a former chancellor and home secretary, regarded his ministers "once appointed, as having the inviolate permanence of the College of Cardinals". In the 1960s, Harold Wilson treated the cabinet reshuffle as, in Jenkin’s words, an "annual gymkhana" designed to distract the media and voters.
Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) prefigured Johnson in her willingness to dismantle cabinets. Ministers who were described as "semi-detached" in the newspapers by an unnamed government source knew that full detachment was imminent.
Ruthlessness does not necessarily correlate with success. Herbert Asquith (1908-16) established the House of Commons’ supremacy and laid the foundations on which Clement Attlee (1945-51) built the welfare state. Neither man fired cabinet ministers with enthusiasm. Attlee reluctantly dismissed paymaster-general Arthur Greenwood when he insisted on running his department from the Charing Cross Hotel lounge.
Such reticence is rare today – The Times’ analysis of cabinet changes since Tony Blair’s victory in 1997 found that the average tenure of a secretary of state is around 15 months. One striking aspect of Johnson’s purge is that 15 of the cabinet ministers he inherited from Theresa May had only been appointed in 2018.
Stanley Baldwin (1923-24, 1924-29 and 1935-37) wanted a cabinet with political balance and wasn’t concerned about subservience or ideological purity. His mistrust of ideology is reflected in his admiration for the English thinker Sir Henry Maine. The idea of Maine’s he particularly liked, Baldwin told a journalist, was: "His view that all human history should be seen in terms of the advance from status to contract." Pausing, he added: "Or was it the other way around?"
In Jenkins’ view, Baldwin’s greatest innovation in office was his habit of reading Strand magazine in the House of Commons’ smoking room: "More likely he was not even reading the magazine, but sniffing it, and with it the atmosphere around him, ruminating, feeling his way, nudging towards a variety of decisions he had to make."
That was unusual even in the 1920s and would be unthinkable today, when no prime minister is considered fully equipped for the job without a Malcolm Tucker-style enforcer, a role Dominic Cummings is performing ably.
As the 77th British prime minister – the 20th to go to Eton and the fourth to study at Balliol College Oxford – Johnson is keen on emulating the energetic omnipotence of his idol Winston Churchill and Thatcher’s micro-managing interventionism than the placidity of Asquith, Attlee or Baldwin.
Churchill never lacked self-belief but he was not especially ruthless with his cabinet. (He was rougher on his generals during World War II.) Churchill was more likely to send ministers a declaratory memo than to fire them.
Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives challenged the convention – not always observed, to be honest – that the prime minister was primus inter pares (first among equals). Thatcher destroyed it completely.
British voters have twice rejected prime ministers who campaigned as presidential personalities – in 1945 when they preferred Attlee to Churchill and in 1970 when they spurned Wilson for Edward Heath – but they have had a presidential style of government foisted upon them by Thatcher, Tony Blair and now, as seems likely, Johnson.
This may be good for prime ministers, but is it good for the UK? The prevailing management trends favour diversity (of opinion, as well as background, to prevent "groupthink"), decentralisation, transparency and engagement. In any other business, the scale and frequency of senior management reshuffles we see in the British government would raise red flags. Yet the new administration, facing the UK’s gravest peacetime crisis since the 1926 General Strike, could be in danger of reverting to an autocratic, command and control, hierarchical management model that big business has persevered with for decades – and found wanting.
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