Friday 5 June 2009

First Secretary of State (some history)

That is Peter Mandelson's new title today.

Of course, the title was given to Michael Heseltine - as First Secretary of State and Deputy Prime Minister in the reshuffle following a long meeting between the two on the morning of July 4th, as the voting took place in the "put up or shut up" leadership contest, in which John Major challenged himself and had the offer taken up by John Redwood.

It was widely rumoured - though officially denied - that this was part of deal which led to around twenty Heseltinians pulling back from abstaining and voting for Major instead. Major's vote was deemed to have met the threshold for survival, closing the question of the leadership. Heseltine never got to wear the crown, but he did get to occupy perhaps the largest office ever seen in Whitehall.

The previous holder prior to Michael Heseltine was Rab Butler, given the role by Harold Macmillan in 1962.

Perhaps that was a consolation prize for Butler being pipped to the premiership by Macmillan in 1957, before being famously stitched out of it by Macmillan's machinations in the extraordinary Tory leadership crisis of 1963. It was Enoch Powell - who refused to serve under Alec Douglas Home with Iain MacLeod - who stated that they had but a revolver into Butler's hands but that he had refused to pull the trigger.

There are several angry newspaper commentators portraying either David Miliband or Alan Johnson for failing to play their allotted part in assassinating a Prime Minister today.


Matthew Kilburn said...

You are missing previous Labour holders of the office. John Prescott is the most recent one, but the post was also held at one point by Barbara Castle.

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks. Yes, fair point. Heseltine and Rab Butler were Prescott's direct predecessors in that they both combined the title of First Sec of State and deputy PM. The post was a bit confused/unclear on that.

(I don't think Howe was First Sec of State; It is suggested that Mandelson is therefore being presented as de facto deputy PM, though he does not have that title, not least because the party has an elected deputy leader).

Matthew Kilburn said...

I agree - I'm certain Howe wasn't First Secretary of State.

The revised table of cabinet precedence - arguably more capricious under Labour post-1997 than under any previous administration - gives Harriet Harman the deputy's precedence she was previously denied, with Mandelson third; effectively they are being presented as joint deputy prime ministers, for different purposes.