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 change in his government 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.

Why might a Prime Minister wish to reshuffle their cabinet?

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 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.

In addition, following the 219 General Election the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government was rebranded as the Department of for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities this rebrand was done to reinforce the notion that the Conservatives were going to close the equality gap across the country and try to retain the ‘Red Wall’ seats that had been won from Labour.

2. To remove ministers who are under-performing.

Gavin Williamson was removed from the Cabinet in September 2021.

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 it was they who 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 is the removal of Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary in September 2021. Williamson had overseen a number of mishaps in his Department, including the A-Level results catastrophe in August 2020 and perceived failures over COVID-19. Despite widespread criticism he did not resign. Finally, in September 2021, Boris Johnson decided that his position was simply no longer tenable and removed him from the Cabinet.

Sometimes a Minister might not be sacked but may simply be reshuffled to a different Cabinet role. 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 given that he was keen to continue as Education Secretary.

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 Minister 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.

Amber Rudd resigned in 2019 over Boris Johnson’s Brexit Policy.

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 wider reshuffle that helps to refresh the government. For example, the September 2019 reshuffle was instigated by the resignations of Amber Rudd and Jo Johnson. It may have been that Johnson would have reshuffled his Cabinet anyway, but the vacancies made it either necessary or preferable.

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 for six years before entering Number 10. However, these examples are very much the exception rather than the norm. Between 1997 and 2015 it was found that 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 with a new team and new challenges.

David Cameron explained the conundrum facing PM in a reshuffle.

Most reshuffles result in just a few ministers being moved. If a Prime Minister tries to move too 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

Why was the Night of the Long Knives so significant?

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.

What was the most recent Cabinet Reshuffle?

At the time of writing the most recent Cabinet Reshuffle was in September 2021, this was the second major reshuffle Boris Johnson had undertaken following one in February 2020, with more a minor reshuffle happening in September 2019.

There were a number of changes made in this reshuffle:

Removed from Cabinet

Gavin Williamson

Robert Buckland

Promoted to Cabinet

Nadine Dorris

Nigel Adams

Kit Malthouse

Michelle Donelan

The post of Deputy PM did not exist until Dominc Raab reportedly demanded it in order to accept his demotion from Foreign Secretary.

The big loser in this reshuffle was Dominic Raab who was demoted from Foreign Secretary. However, there were reports that he had threated not to accept another job unless he was also offered the post of Deputy Prime Minister. The big winner was Nadhim Zahawi who jumped from a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to being Secretary of State for Education.

How important are reshuffles?

Reshuffling the Cabinet is an important power for the Prime Minister to try to keep control of the political agenda and of his Government. Rewarding someone with a promotion is a good way to keep someone loyal whilst moving people can help to refresh the look of the Government. Most Cabinet Reshuffles are significant, but not many are anywhere near as brutal as that of the Night of Long Knives. Alongside the positives that might occur from a reshuffle, there is a also a danger that a Prime Minister looks like they have lost control.

Article Summary

Reshuffles are an important mechanism used by Prime Ministers to keep control of their government. They may be instigated for a number of reasons, but they are always likely to happen at least once every two years. A reshuffle is a dangerous time for a Prime Minister and it was one of the most carefully thought out political decisions they will make.

Key Terms

Red Wall – The seats in the North of England that were seen to be certain Labour seats but of which many were won by the Conservatives in 2019. Workington is a good example of a Red Wall seat that fell to the Conservatives.

Cabinet Reshuffle – When a Prime Minister moves people around his cabinet and both removes people and brings in fresh blood to the team.

Cabinet – The body made up of the Heads of Government departments in the UK which makes collective government decisions.

Night of the Long Knives – The most famous Cabinet Reshuffle of all time. This occurred on the 13th July 1962 and saw 13 Ministers removed from the Cabinet.

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