By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron, George Osborne, Boris Johnson and I were the four backbench musketeers deputed to help Iain Duncan Smith with preparation for Prime Minister's Questions – although it wasn't necessarily a case of "All For One And One For All". Osborne was superlative at planning for the kung fu-crossed-with-chess grapple that PMQs is – turning out for Michael Howard, when the latter succeeded Duncan Smith, the line: "This grammar school boy won't take any lectures from that public school boy". (So the line about a grammar school boy was written by a public school boy.)
Cameron also excelled at the task. I was a Coca Cola League Two player trying to mix it with these Championship giants, though there were moments when we could all put our feet up together, and relax. It was during one of these that Cameron raised the sacking of his old boss, Norman Lamont, as Chancellor by John Major: perhaps IDS was shuffling his own team at the time. "What Major should have done," Cameron said, "was call Lamont in during an evening, sit him down on the sofa and say: "Look, Norman, this isn't working."
What Major did instead was to summon Lamont to Downing Street at 9.15 in the morning. After Lamont refused to move to Environment and resigned, Major sent him the usual letter thanking him for his outstanding achievements. Lamont then instructed Cameron to issue a statement to the Press Association rather than the standard reply pledging undying loyalty. So Cameron knew about the perils of reshuffles long before he became Prime Minister or even Leader of the Opposition. "Paul," he said to me years later in that role, "I want you to move to…(There was a pause as he consulted his notes: to where? East Grinstead? Nairobi? Yakutusk?)…CLG!"
Being moved by Cameron was thus an unobjectionable experience for me and also, I presume, for him. By contrast, sacking or demoting people will have been unpleasant for all concerned. I've now spoken to several people who were Ministers at the start of the week, and they give common report. The process is as follows. Those on their way out are summoned to his Commons office to avoid the Downing Street cameras, which are reserved for those on the way up, such as Esther McVey and my heroine, Anna Soubry.
The Prime Minister strides out from his inner sanctum to the outer office in his shirtsleeves. He shepherds the victim into the former, and sits him down in a comfy chair. While the victim is still struggling with the cushions, Cameron launches into his patter: Splendid Minister/Terrific at job/No complaints/Good in the House/Splendid on telly/Popular with [fill in name of lobby group here]/Utterly loyal – hint: don't stop now – Got To Fire You. After which the victim staggers out to seek some desolate shade and weep his sad bosom empty. I have had no reports of a sozzled Prime Minister swigging from a bottle.
So all in all, Cameron knows all about the dangers of reshuffles, and is far more likely to have been given the industrial fan treatment than to have given it himself. I don't believe that he told Caroline Spelman she was too old. He probably said that he needed to bring in new blood, or to refresh his team, or something like that. He may just have said in general terms that he needed some younger people. Nor is it remotely likely that he sat sipping at the Sauternes while firing Cheryl Gillan, though he apparently may have been eating and drinking before she arrived.
Which raises the kind of heavyweight questions we journalists love to pose. Was there an open bottle on his desk, then? Or a half-empty glass? If so, was the glass on the desk? Or by the sofa? Or was he perhaps holding the glass? And so on. To be honest, I feel sorry for the Prime Minister: foolish of me to do so, no doubt – after all, he wasn't forced to hold the office, and he has just fired roughly ten people too many. It may also be true that there is a bit of an issue about Team Cameron and women appointments: I can only think of two female members of his political inner circle, Kate Fall, a Deputy of Chief Chief, and Gaby Bertin, his press secretary.
And there are decisions that are hard to understand. I have already written about the disappearance of Tim Loughton beneath a blizzard of floral tributes, delivered yesterday via Twitter, and the total dedication to improving schools and raising standards of Nick Gibb. Yes, dismissing Charles Hendry, who responded with a stylish tribute to his civil servants, seems strange, because he's another expert in his brief. So does taking the same course with Stephen O'Brien, the only pre-reshuffle Minister from a crucial electoral battleground area, the north-west.
But the unswervable-away from truth is: all Ministers, sooner or later,
are sacked, apart from those who resign, go bonkers, or lose
their seats, or mix two of the three. They can't all stay in place – not without freezing the Government in aspic. None the less, the Prime Minister's spine will have been disturbed by a shiver during those tear-filled conversations with Ministers this week: what was happening to them may, albeit in a different form, one day happen to him. For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings/How some have been deposed, some slain in war/Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed…