Man Overboard (Yes, Prime Minister)

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"Man Overboard"
Yes, Prime Minister episode
Episode no. Series 2
Episode 1
Written by Antony Jay
Jonathan Lynn
Produced by Sydney Lotterby
Original air date 3 December 1987
Guest appearance(s)
Episode chronology
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"One of Us"
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"Official Secrets"
List of Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister episodes

“Man Overboard” is the ninth episode of the BBC comedy series Yes, Prime Minister and was first broadcast 3 December 1987. It satirises the Westland affair, which took place the previous year.


The Employment Secretary has come up with a plan to relocate up to 300,000 service personnel from the south to the north of England. The idea is that setting up new bases in the north will create many civilian jobs in such things as maintenance and administration and boost the local economy.

The Ministry of Defence is thrown into turmoil. There are few strategic arguments against the move, in fact, militarily, it does make sense. The main objection is that senior officers and their wives will be denied such pleasures as Wimbledon, Ascot, Henley, and Harrods.

Sir Humphrey Appleby, Britain's top civil servant, agrees that the scheme must be blocked on these grounds but since there are no strategic or economic objections to the plan he decides that it would be better to cast doubt on the loyalty of the Employment Secretary towards the Prime Minister.

The PM, Jim Hacker, chairs a cabinet committee on the subject, and all present are in favour of the proposal, save for the Defence Secretary, whose department stands to undergo enormous upheaval if it goes ahead. The Employment Secretary is delighted at the majority decision and specifically requests that it is reflected in the minutes. Afterwards, Sir Humphrey stays behind and discusses the plan with the PM. Hacker knows that the defence chiefs object on purely social grounds, but, by claiming his own support for the idea, Sir Humphrey proceeds to praise the Employment Secretary profusely and remark on his general popularity within the government party and the country at large. Thus, the Cabinet Secretary successfully sows the seeds of doubt in Hacker’s mind. The PM asks to see the Chief Whip immediately.

Bernard Woolley, Hacker’s Principal Private Secretary, is shocked that there appears to be a Cabinet plot against the PM. He confronts Sir Humphrey, who is just as surprised at the news, because there is no plot, the Employment Secretary being well known for his loyalty. However, he tells Bernard of the likely repercussions for civil service staff if the relocation scheme goes ahead: they would have to move as well. Sir Humphrey knows that the Chief Whip cannot categorically deny an alleged plot against Hacker, and asks Bernard to inform him of the ensuing chat with the PM. When Bernard is uncertain if he can, on grounds of confidentiality, Sir Humphrey affirms that he needs to know everything: how else can he judge whether or not he needs to know it?

Hacker meets with the Chief Whip, who, as Sir Humphrey predicted, is unable to confirm or deny anything. Having ascertained the name of the so-called leadership challenger, he leaves to make some enquiries.

Sir Humphrey lunches with Sir Arnold Robinson, the former Cabinet Secretary and currently Chairman of the Campaign for the Freedom of Information. Sir Humphrey persuades Sir Arnold to leak a story to the press concerning an apparent attempt by the PM to block his Employment Secretary’s plan. Sir Arnold initially expresses outrage at the idea of leaking confidential information to the press, but comes round to Sir Humphrey's view that it is in fact "confidential disinformation". He further notes that this may produce the desired effect: “man overboard.”

Sir Humphrey intercepts Hacker’s evening newspaper en route to the Cabinet Room and, having confirmed that it features the expected headline, asks its bearer to enter with it in a short while. In the meantime, the PM’s paranoia is growing. He is now almost certain that there is a plot and that the Employment Secretary is behind it. Sir Humphrey remarks that the relocation plan is bound to be leaked to the press and that if it is reported as the PM's idea, then there is nothing for Hacker to worry about. The evening paper arrives right on cue, and the PM is livid when he sees the lead story. He now knows that the Employment Secretary’s proposal cannot be adopted. Sir Humphrey smoothly backs up his seeming fait accompli with an MOD internal memo that casts doubt on the economic viability of the plan. They agree to leak it to the press.

The next day, there is a Cabinet meeting. As it begins, the Employment Secretary is immediately troubled that his proposal is not on the agenda. The PM explains that it has been shelved until all the current press speculation dies down. The Employment Secretary complains that all who are present, save one, endorsed it at the last meeting. However, Hacker denies this, and Sir Humphrey backs him up by stating — with typical loquaciousness — that any such agreement was not reflected in the minutes. The PM seeks to calm things down by quoting a three-point plan, drawn up by Sir Humphrey, which involves abiding by the Cabinet’s collective decision, a cooling-off period and any future press briefings to be cleared by the Cabinet Office (i.e. Sir Humphrey). The Employment Secretary finds this unacceptable and is therefore asked by Hacker to consider his position.

Later, when the resignation makes front page news, a stoical Hacker is mollified by Sir Humphrey who reassures the PM that he “handled it brilliantly.” He points out that Hacker had forced the resignation on an obscure administrative issue of his own choosing, rather than on an important policy matter espoused by the Employment Secretary. However, Sir Humphrey snatches defeat from the jaws of victory: Hacker can now see no reason to delay the relocation plan, and if it is now adopted, the resignation from his Cabinet will seem pointless and his leadership cannot be questioned. The PM instructs a maddened Sir Humphrey to put it back at the top of the next Cabinet agenda.


The resignation of a top Secretary of State over a major defence issue, which casts doubt on the Prime Minister's position echoes the Westland Affair in which Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine stormed out of cabinet and was seen by many as a potential threat to PM Margaret Thatcher's leadership.


Sir Humphrey: It is characteristic of all committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them and that every member’s recollection of them differs violently from every other member’s recollection. Consequently, we accept the convention that the official decisions are those and only those which have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, from which it emerges with an elegant inevitability that any decision which has been officially reached will have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials and any decision which is not recorded in the minutes has not been officially reached even if one or more members believe they can recollect it, so in this particular case, if the decision had been officially reached it would have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, and it isn’t so it wasn’t.

Episode cast[edit]

Actor Role
Paul Eddington Jim Hacker
Nigel Hawthorne Sir Humphrey Appleby
Derek Fowlds Bernard Woolley
John Nettleton Sir Arnold Robinson
Michael Byrne Employment Secretary
Frederick Treves Chief of Defence Staff
Peter Cartwright Chief Whip
David Glover Sir Alan Guthrie
David Conville Secretary of State for Defence
Philip Anthony First cabinet minister
Philip Blaine Second cabinet minister
Geoffrey Cousins Third cabinet minister
Hilary Field Secretary

External links[edit]

"Man Overboard" at the Internet Movie Database