Reshuffling ministers annually is no way to govern

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

‘Annual reshuffles are crazy,’ remarked one of the prime minister’s most trusted advisers in July 1999 as I hovered outside the cabinet room, waiting to be anointed as the lowest form of ministerial life in John Prescott’s vast department — environment, transport and the regions. He went on:

There is massive in-built insecurity. Ministers, who may not be there in a year, are on top of a civil service which is permanent and who have nothing more to worry about than who gets what gong. The chances of moving anything more than 0.1 per cent are slim.

Crazy as reshuffles may be, most prime ministers are addicted to them. On New Labour’s watch, John Reid held nine different ministerial posts in ten years. The education and health departments were regularly turned inside out. There were nine work and pensions secretaries in ten years and 13 Europe ministers  in as many. I was Labour’s sixth Africa minister — there were nine altogether. It was deeply damaging. I may have been a small fry back home, but in Africa I dealt at head-of-state level, and foreigners like to see the same face twice.

The merry-go-round was not confined to the Blair-Brown governments, but has been a long-running feature. Visit the home secretary, and the first thing that strikes you are the photos of his or her predecessors: they run into the middle distance along one side of the corridor and back along the other — a daily reminder to the incumbent of the impermanence of power. Recently I came across a retired senior civil servant who, during his 35-year career, had served a staggering 35 trade ministers.

In fairness, there have been important exceptions. Jack Straw was home secretary for four years and foreign secretary for five.  Gordon Brown (who was, of course, unreshufflable) was chancellor for ten; and Clare Short spent six years as international development secretary. You can make your mark in that time, and they all did.

David Cameron came to office determined to avoid annual reshuffles, but old habits soon resurfaced. The career of Rory Stewart is instructive. Five ministerial jobs in four years — including Africa minister (six months) and prisons (17 months). For the past couple of months he has been secretary of state for international development, but I’d be surprised if he sees the year out.

Prime ministers, of course, have many fish to fry, competing interests to balance and crises to resolve, especially in this age of media feeding-frenzy. Brexit, too, is a complicating factor, triggering frequent upheaval. But surely there must be a better way to govern.

Peter Riddell, a distinguished political commentator and currently director of the institute of government, has produced a fluent, entertaining and at the same time serious analysis of the British way of governing. It is based on interviews with several generations of former ministers and senior officials and addresses not only the vexed issue of ministerial longevity but relations between ministers and officials, the role of special advisers and attempts (with mixed results) by successive prime ministers to widen the talent pool by bringing in outsiders.

Political mismanagement is by no means the only obstacle to good government. Francis Maude, a former cabinet office minister, complains about the civil service:

All too often the first reaction of civil servants when something wrong is discovered is either to cover it up or to find a scapegoat, often someone who is not a career civil servant and who is considered dispensable.

Turnover is a problem with officials too. Margaret Hodge, a former head of the public accounts committee, not quoted by Riddell, has complained elsewhere that the frequent reshuffling of officials means that when a major project goes wrong, often at the cost of many millions of taxpayers’ money, those responsible are long gone.

I have a small bone to pick with the author. Although I was not interviewed, my first volume of diaries is cited several times as evidence for the view that all junior ministerial life is pointless. That is not my opinion. There is a huge variation in the junior ministerial jobs. Much depends on whether you have a secretary of state who is willing to delegate. My two years at the foreign office under Jack Straw were among the happiest of my political life.

Riddell’s solutions will be familiar to any student of British government: a reduced payroll, training for front benchers in opposition, a way back for those whose services are dispensed with and, above all, fewer reshuffles. Will anything change if Boris Johnson ascends the throne? Somehow I doubt it.

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