May 30, 2002 ,

CABINET Members wait nervously by the phone. Aspiring, would-be holders of important portfolios gather hopefully, praying for good news.

It's reshuffle time. Yes, of course, this week was the first ever reshuffle of Cardiff County Council's Cabinet, as Russell Goodway acquired the right for the first time to personally choose the team responsible for running the city's services.

Meanwhile in Westminster there is the small matter of the Government reshuffle triggered off by the resignation of Stephen Byers as Transport Secretary. This was the end of a long chain of events which started on September 11, when Mr Byers' Special Advisor, Jo Moore, sent a foolish e-mail about burying news on a day when thousands died.

Mr Byers refused to sack his advisor in an act of ill-advised loyalty. It later emerged in hearings of the Public Administration Select Committee, of which I am a member, that Ms Moore was so unpopular with civil servants in her Department that they were determined to get rid of her.

Mr Byers' departure was a pity in some ways given that he had at least tried to get a grip on Railtrack, and get it to put passengers before profits. The media pack, however, had a victim in their sights. When the politician, not the policy, becomes the story it is often not long before they have to go.

The resignation of a Minister is like removing a card (a wall? – use of card twice doesn't scan amazingly well) from a House of Cards. There are consequences, and the Prime Minister has to rebuild his team. It also gives him an opportunity for some Governmental pruning. Like a good gardener, he has to brutally cut back growth to allow new shoots to bloom.

For some, an end to the ministerial grind of thankless graft, endless speaking engagements, office openings and red boxes full of Government paper may come as a relief. To others, a glance outside the window this morning would have brought home the shock realization that the ministerial car is no longer there to ferry you around, and that unspoken ambition that one day you might get to the very top is probably over.

But it is possible to come back. Churchill was in the wilderness for years, having been Home Secretary and Chancellor before returning to Government with outbreak of World War Two in 1939. In this reshuffle, Mike O'Brien has come back as a minister, having previously lost his job when he said that Peter Mandelson had telephoned him about the Hinduja brothers' passports.
So perhaps there's hope yet for my good friend Angela Eagle, who unexpectedly, and only at the age of forty, finds herself back on the backbenches even though her twin sister Maria is still a minister.

The most important thing, however, for any Prime Minister is to appoint the best team for the job as he sees it. Transport is a vital ministerial portfolio which the Government has to get right for all our futures. Who's up and who's down is the froth of politics; it's achievement and delivery which count.

Appointing someone to a top job must be one of the most pleasurable parts of a Prime Minister's duty. One only had to see the smile on Paul Boateng, Britain's first Black cabinet Minister, to see that. The other side of the coin, however, is having to tell colleagues that their services are no longer required.

It is a brutal business. I've no idea how the current Prime Minister handles it, but one Prime Minister was famously curt.

Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee once asked one of his colleagues to leave the Government. The unfortunate minister asked Attlee why he had been singled out; ‘Not up to the job' was the reply. To older friends and colleagues, Attlee would say, ‘well, you've had a good innings. Time to put you bat in the pavilion.'

This week I met sir Geoff Hurst who was in Cardiff for a coaching scheme for kids. Perhaps, I thought, inspired by the imminent world Cup the prime minister would have handled his outgoing ministers like this – ‘You think it's all over. It is now.'