In an attempt to revive her government’s fading political fortunes, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Monday announced her first major Cabinet reshuffle since she won power six years ago, shifting or dropping more than one-third of her senior ministers.
Thatcher, calling the changes “tremendous,” said that the shake-up was necessary to place “greater emphasis on enterprise and employment.”
Unemployment, running at a postwar high of over 13%, is viewed as Britain’s most pressing political problem.
Although key Cabinet jobs at the Treasury as well as the Foreign Office and the Defense Ministry remained unaffected, the shuffle was still seen as a major effort to revive floundering domestic economic policy.
The most important change, and one that was unexpected, was the promotion of Northern Ireland Secretary John Hurd to take charge of the Home Office, replacing Leon Brittan in one of the most powerful Cabinet posts.
New Party Leader
Brittan was shifted to the important but glamourless job of trade and industry secretary, relieving Norman Tebbitt, one of Thatcher’s closest aides, who takes over the Conservative Party chairmanship to begin preparations for the 1988 elections.
Dozens of minor ministers and other ministry officials were dropped or shifted.
The reshuffle, which follows a series of political setbacks for the Thatcher government in recent months, had been rumored since early summer.
Political analysts interpreted the changes as an indication of how seriously Thatcher views the decline of her party’s popularity, precipitated by an inability to cut rising unemployment and a series of political gaffes in recent months.
Employment Secretary Tom King, one of the casualties, was transferred to the less prestigious and politically thorny job as head of the Northern Ireland Office.
Thatcher elevated a relative outsider, Lord Young, to replace King. A self-made millionaire, Young, 53, joined the Cabinet only last year as a minister without portfolio after developing a successful youth employment scheme.
The changes are also seen as an effort to spruce up the public image of the government. Brittan, an uninspiring personality who drew heavy criticism for his ham-fisted tactics in forcing the British Broadcasting Corp. to withdraw a documentary feature on terrorism in Northern Ireland last month, was apparently shifted as an image-building measure.
Leaders of the opposition Labor and Social Democrat-Liberal Alliance parties ridiculed the shake-up, dismissing it as cosmetic.
“This is a game of musical chairs to the sound of the death march,” Labor leader Neil Kinnock said.
Liberal Party leader David Steel commented: “The Cabinet has been shaken about a bit but it’s the same old jar of jellybeans. The result may look different but the flavor remains the same.”