Much as he might have liked to, Edmund Dell, a cabinet minister in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, never came close to being appointed chancellor of the exchequer. But he did write what remains the best book ever written about the post-war occupants of that office and their relationships with the prime ministers at whose pleasure (which, all too often, turned swiftly to displeasure) they served.
Of Harold Macmillan, who, very unusually it must be said, moved straight from Number 11 to Number 10 when he replaced Anthony Eden as PM in 1957, Dell wrote that, in his six or so years in charge, he got through chancellors more rapidly than Henry VIII got through wives and “with even less satisfaction”.
Macmillan lost his first Downing Street neighbour after just a year, when Peter Thorneycroft resigned over the Cabinet’s failure to reign in public spending in order to combat rising inflation. Macmillan’s second chancellor, Derick Heathcoat-Amory, stepped down only two-and-a-half years later to be replaced by Selwyn Lloyd, whose pre-emptory dismissal in July 1962 became legendary, not so much on its own account but because it was one of seven spectacularly simultaneous Cabinet sackings in what was quickly dubbed “The Night of the Long Knives”.
To understand why Macmillan’s move earned such a sobriquet, one has to imagine Boris Johnson getting rid of the following in one fell swoop (for once, the cliché is entirely appropriate): Dominic Raab, Nadhim Zahawi, Ben Wallace, Alister Jack, Michael Gove, Oliver Dowden, and, of course, Rishi Sunak.
Amputation at such a scale would surely make last month’s relatively wide-ranging reshuffle look like keyhole surgery. Which raises the obvious question: why did “Supermac”, having won a 100-seat majority three years earlier, suddenly become ‘Mac the Knife’ – the premier of whom Jeremy Thorpe so marvellously quipped: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”?
There is an easy answer and a more complicated one. On the face of it, Macmillan simply panicked: a string of bad by-elections culminating in the loss of Orpington, a safe Tory seat next to his own in Bromley, plus the fact that the press had got wind of his plans for a reshuffle in the autumn, persuaded him he had to act sooner rather than later in order to stop the rot.
But underpinning Macmillan’s decision was his dissatisfaction with a chancellor who’d delivered an unpopular budget just a few months earlier and who disagreed with him on the need to prioritise economic growth over spending restraint.
Yet, as Boris Johnson might well find if he were ever to essay something similar, be careful what you wish for. By appointing the less phlegmatic, more carefree (and careless) Reggie Maudling, Macmillan got his “dash for growth” – only to pile up more problems as a result. Within 15 months he’d resigned as a Prime Minister, pleading ill-health, and a year later Labour, after more than a decade in the wilderness, was back in power.