Why do Cabinet Reshuffles take place and why is the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ so famous?

Harold Macmillan oversaw the Night of the Long Knives.

Cabinet reshuffles happen fairly regularly in the UK and take place for a number of reasons. But there has been no reshuffle anything like that which happened on 13th July 1962 when Harold Macmillan oversaw a reshuffle that was so brutal that it became known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives, after the infamous event of 30th June 1934 when Hitler’s SS purged the SA.

There are a number of reasons that a Prime Minister might want to reshuffle their cabinet:

1. To reflect a change in policies/direction.

The Prime Minister may choose to change their cabinet to kick-start a change in agenda for the government. This often comes when the government has been seen to be under performing or needs a clear message indicated to the electorate.

Stephen Barclay was the last of three Brexit Secretaries.

A good example of this is recently is through the abolition of the office of Brexit Secretary (officially Secretary of State for exiting the European Union). By abolishing this position on the 31st January 2020 (then held by Stephen Barkley), Boris Johnson was trying to send a firm message that the job of Brexit had been completed.

2. To remove ministers who are under-performing.

Just leaving this photo here…no reason.

Ministers are meant to abide by the doctrine of Individual Ministerial Responsibility. Under this convention, if a Minister knows they are under-performing they should tender their resignation to the Prime Minister. However, firstly, many Ministers would never admit they were under performing. Secondly, the Prime Minister does not want to admit his Ministers are under performing as this reflects on them, as they appointed them. Therefore, a Cabinet Reshuffle is a good way to get rid of failing ministers under the cover of a change they could claim was happening anyway.

A good example of this happening is the removal of Michael Gove as Education Secretary in 2014. He had overseen a wide-ranging reform agenda in schools, however, he was widely disliked by Trade Unions who had held successful indicative votes of no confidence in him. In the reshuffle he was moved to position of Chief Whip. This could be presented as a promotion, but in reality it was clearly a demotion.

3. To promote ministers or bring in new ministers to government.

Cabinet Reshuffles are a chance to bring in new members to the Cabinet and to give promotions to those who have been successful as Ministers of State or Under-Secretaries of State.

Rory Stewart was predicted a long career in government, however, Brexit impacted this.

For example, in 2019 Rory Stewart was appointed to the Cabinet. Previously, he had been an Environment Minister and Prisons Ministers and was seen to have done both successfully. He was considered a rising star in the party and this small reshuffle (following Gavin Williamson’s dismissal for allegedly leaking classified information to a newspaper) saw his talents rewarded.

4. To refresh the government in the eyes of the public.

At times, Governments can simply become stale. The electorate are often frustrated by seeing and hearing the same people on TV and a reshuffle can help refresh the emerge of the government.

5. The fill vacancies arising from ministers resigning.

If a Minister resigns their position then this will need to be filled. This normally involves promoting someone and therefore requiring a reshuffle. Sometimes, a ministerial resignation can be a useful excuse to hold a reshuffle that helps to refresh the government.

6. To create new government departments.

Many Government Departments are centuries old – for example the Home Office or Treasury. However, sometimes new government departments might be created. In recent years, these have included:

Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – Created in 2016.

Department for International Trade – Created in 2016.

Department for Exiting the European Union – Created in 2016 and abolished in 2020.

The very existence of cabinet reshuffles also keeps Ministers on their feet. They always know their performance is being scrutinised and they could be removed if their performance or popularity drops. Famously, in the brilliant TV Program Yes Minister, the Minister of Administrative Affairs Jim Hacker is always worried about the next reshuffle:

Theresa May’s 7-year stint as Home Secretary is unusual in the modern era.

One of the problems with the process, and even expectation of reshuffles, is that it is rare for ministers to stay in post for a long enough to build up significant expertise. Gordon Brown was Chancellor for 10 years before becoming Prime Minister whilst Theresa May was Home Secretary before ascending to the same position. However, these examples are very much the exception rather than the norm. Since 1997 the average tenure of a government minister in a particular post is just 2 years. This often means that just when they are building up confidence and expertise in a certain position, they find themselves being moved to an entirely new department.

Most reshuffles result in just a few ministers being moved. If a Prime Minister tries to move to many ministers, there is a danger that they are going to look weak and that their government will look like it is in panic. In his autobiography former British Prime Minister pithily summed up the conundrum that Prime Minister’s face when contemplating a reshuffle:

Friends in business used to say, ‘We all have to take tough decisions to get the right top team – why all the fuss about political reshuffles?’ To which I would reply, ‘Yes, but you don’t have to appoint your entire team on the same day, in full view of the world’s television cameras. And the ones you sack go away. The ones I sack sit behind me and plot my downfall’

David Cameron on the perils of reshuffles for a Prime Minister

Yet, on the 13th July 1962, Harold Macmillan sacked 7 members of his cabinet, one-third of the total. So why did he take this drastic decision and did it work?

Macmillan sacked seven ministers in a single reshuffle.

Harold Macmillan’s Conservatives won a dominant victory at the 1959 General Election. However, some of their decisions following the election were unpopular, including reversing tax cuts that they had made in 1959. The Conservatives lost a number of by-elections. The loss of by-elections are often a clear indication of popular opinion as the nation focuses in on the constituency in question and they often become a referendum on the government’s performance.

Macmillan became increasingly concerned that Conservative voters may vote for the Liberal Party at a general election. This concern was only heightened when a by-election in Stockon-on-Tees (Macmillan’s former seat) saw the Conservatives lose 18.5% of their vote.

Some of Macmillan’s advisers began to suggest that a major change was needed. Macmillan met with his advisers and discussed removing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Selwyn Lloyd. Removing the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a major step for any Prime Minister to make as they are the de facto number two in government. Macmillan was also conscious that his cabinet was relatively elderly and believed that bringing in younger figures would help to ‘freshen up’ the look of the government.

Macmillan had not planned to conduct the reshuffle until after the Summer recess, however, word was leaked about his plans to the press and he was therefore pushed into doing it earlier. This made it looked rushed and impulsive, even though he had actually been considering it for a very long time.

Selwyn Lloyd was sacked as Chancellor and later became Speaker of the House of Commons.

His first act was to tell Selywn Lloyd that he would be replaced as Chancellor. Contrary to reports, Lloyd reacted to the decision gracefully. Over the next three days, seven members of the cabinet were replaced.

The reshuffle was the largest in British history and was widely mocked in the press (hence its nickname) but was greeted relatively well within the Conservative Party. It also seemed to sure up MacMillan’s position temporarily, although a number of scandals, including the Profumo Affair, left him politically vulnerable before he resigned due to ill-health in 1963.

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019 his first cabinet was the newest in history and saw a number of ‘brexiteers’ join the Cabinet. A number of significant ‘remainers’ left the Cabinet, including Philip Hammond and Rory Stewart. His first reshuffle came February 2020 and was one of the most significant in recent years. It saw five Ministers sacked, including Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey. Savid Javid also resigned from the government after Johnson controversially gave him an ultimatum demanding that he sack one of his key advisers.

Despite the last reshuffle being just 14 months ago, it is likely a reshuffle will happen soon. During COVID-19 the public have been saturated with certain Ministers and the chance to refresh the term will probably be grasped as soon as it is politically convenient.

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