Tough at the top, by Peter Riddell

5 Jul 07
It's been a challenging week for Team Gordon, as the new PM and his Cabinet strive to show who's in charge. Peter Riddell assesses what all the ministerial changes mean

06 July 2007

It's been a challenging week for Team Gordon, as the new PM and his Cabinet strive to show who's in charge. Peter Riddell assesses what all the ministerial changes mean

Gordon Brown is seldom subtle. If a point is worth making once, it is worth repeating several times. So when he arrived at Number 10 on June 27, he mentioned the word 'change' eight times in his brief statement. Until the terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow intervened, everything he said and did was intended to reinforce that simple message. It was manifest in changes in personnel, in the structure of Whitehall, and in how he said decisions would be taken.

In his first television interview, for Andrew Marr's BBC1 Sunday AM programme, Brown stressed how he would be running a Cabinet – not a 'sofa' – government – and he did not have to say 'unlike you know who'. Within 48 hours of taking office he had held two Cabinet meetings.

In a wholesale change of staff at Number 10 reminiscent of the White House after the election of a new president, Brown has imported a strong, and mainly Treasury, team of senior officials and advisers. Tom Scholar will be both chief of staff and principal private secretary, and the controversial 1997 order in council allowing advisers to give orders to civil servants has been revoked (a largely symbolic act). This is intended to emphasise the pre-eminence of the civil service, as opposed to special advisers.

However, several of the civil servants, like Scholar and Mike Ellam, the new prime minister's spokesman, are very much Brown's people, having worked closely with him in the Treasury. But they are all keen to draw clear lines of distinction between the civil service and political sides.

The most significant appointee is Jeremy Heywood in the new post of head of domestic policy and strategy, covering much more than the old Cabinet Office secretariat.

There is a lot of sensitivity about talk of creating a Prime Minister's Department in all but name. Hence, Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet secretary, has insisted that Heywood, along with the two new foreign affairs advisers (Simon Macdonald and Jon Cunliffe) will be based in the Cabinet Office, not Number 10. Again, this is an attempt to reassert the traditional civil service model, but there will be plenty here for Whitehall Kremlinologists to savour.

Brown's first task was to show that a new team was in charge. After all, he had been chancellor for more than ten years and Alistair Darling, his successor at the Treasury, had been in the Cabinet for the same period. Naturally, the Tories were eager to emphasise the familiarity of the faces. But Brown was ruthless, even jettisoning his reluctant old ally Margaret Beckett. Almost half the old Blair Cabinet departed, in by far the biggest reconstruction of the government since 1997, and larger in scale than Harold Macmillan's 'night of the long knives' in 1962.

The average age was reduced by five years and key posts were given to relatively inexperienced ministers – David Miliband at the Foreign Office and Jacqui Smith at the Home Office, who soon faced a severe test over terrorism.

Talk of a tilt to the Left is misleading. Even the distinction between Blairites and Brownites might soon become redundant, since their rivalry was kept alive only by the tension between the two champions. But with Tony Blair gone – from the Commons as well as Number 10 – Brown faces no challenger or rival.

He was careful to keep some key Blair allies in the government, notably John Hutton, Tessa Jowell (though outside the Cabinet as Olympics minister) and Andrew (Lord) Adonis. Outside the Cabinet, however, he did reward long-term allies and brought back several ex-ministers, such as former chief whip Nick Brown, now deputy chief whip; Michael Wills, in a key role dealing with constitutional reform; and Ann Keen, his former parliamentary private secretary, as a junior health minister. Being disloyal to Blair has been no bar, with four of the plotters in the failed coup last September being given jobs.

For all his talk of a new politics, Brown showed himself a master of patronage by increasing the number of ministers and whips in both Houses to 118, compared with 113 in the outgoing Blair administration and just 103 in 1990. The reduction in the number of ministers in the Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales Offices following devolution has been more than matched by increases elsewhere. Indeed, the number of ministers so far exceeds the statutory maximum for paid ministers that ten of the new ministers and whips (seven in the Commons and three in the Lords) will receive no extra pay. In addition, there are likely to be 50 or more parliamentary private secretaries, plus six new party deputy chairs and 14 heads of manifesto groups (including three ex-Cabinet ministers). This means that getting on for half the parliamentary party (excluding peers) will be tied to the government in one way or another.

The expanded government includes five outsiders who have become ministers in the Lords. These range from Shriti Vadera, a controversial former adviser to Brown, in International Development; Sir Alan West, a former first sea lord and intelligence expert, a security minister in the Home Office; Sir Mark Malloch Brown, a former senior United Nations official, minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations; Sir Digby Jones, the rumbustious former director general of the CBI, a minister for trade promotion; and Professor Sir Ara Darzi, a leading cancer specialist, junior health minister.

This followed Brown's failure to recruit former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown as Northern Ireland secretary. These outsiders are both trophies and evidence of Brown's claim to create a 'government of all the talents'. But, in the past, they have seldom lasted long. Elected politicians in the Commons make all the key decisions, while outsiders find it hard to adjust to the political world.

Will the momentum of the Blairite reforms of the past few years be maintained? Reformers were appointed to most key departments: Alan Johnson at Health; Ed Balls at the new Department for Children, Schools and Families; Hazel Blears at Communities and Local Government; and John Hutton at the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (the successor to the Department of Trade and Industry). The only puzzle was the appointment of Peter Hain to Work and Pensions. While full of political energy, Hain has never been regarded as a details man. However, Hutton has already settled the main direction of welfare reform and pensions policy.

Overall, three departments have disappeared (DTI, Education and Skills and the rump Department of the Deputy Prime Minister), to be replaced by three new ones, those headed by Balls and Hutton and the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius). The most puzzling split is of the old Education Department, especially since there is now much more emphasis on improving links between universities, institutions of higher and further education and secondary schools.

The new Department for Children, Schools and Families will cover education up to the age of 19, not just schools but wider policy affecting children and young people. It will be responsible not only for children's social services but also for leading strategy on family policy, including parenting. It will work with Work and Pensions and the Treasury on trying to end child poverty, and with Health on tackling obesity. There is a long list of other joint responsibilities, such as with Culture, Media and Sport on promoting youth sport; and with Communities and Local Government on youth homelessness. It will assume responsibility for the 'Respect' agenda from the Home Office. All this is aside from schools, where funding for 16 to 19 education will in future go to schools and colleges via the local authority education budget.

But much more significant than this organisational map is why Balls asked to be put in charge of the new department. He is, after all, one of Brown's closest allies and this department, with all its problems, will be a chance for him to show that he is not just a Treasury animal – even if he is probably headed for the chancellorship some time after the next general election, if Labour wins.

Brown has stressed his support for further reform in education, including backing the expansion of the academies programme, despite criticisms from the teaching unions and Labour local authorities. He has suggested some changes, such as linking universities and similar bodies with academies, but without the financial commitment of private sponsors. The clearest evidence was in the reappointment of Adonis as junior education minister with the specific brief of carrying on with the creation of academies.

Dius illustrates Brown's overriding concern with globalisation and the challenges from China and India. He believes that countries develop their competitive edge from their research base and speed of innovation, and from developing skills both among graduates and the workforce generally. The new department will be responsible for the development, funding and performance of higher education and further education. It will take over responsibility from the old DTI for science and innovation, overseeing the ring-fenced science budget.

But will the disruption and costs of setting up new departments and moving staff around produce sufficient benefits? It is hard to point to gains in performance from previous shake-ups. Both the old DTI and the education department have gone through numerous changes over the past 30 years. Well over half the departments represented around the Cabinet table have had their titles and functions altered in the past ten years. What has mattered much more has been policies and their implementation: for instance, the numeracy and literacy strategies after 1997.

Brown has stated that, while education is his passion, health is his priority. The Department of Health had a very rough year or two as Patricia Hewitt pushed through a new financial system and dealt with repeated organisational problems. This has left Labour trailing the Tories as the best party for running the health service. Johnson's brief will be to win back support from both NHS staff and the public. His style is more populist than Hewitt's. Brown has talked about a new settlement for the NHS to coincide with its sixtieth anniversary next year. This will be both a very Brownite reaffirmation of the values of 'free at point of use/needs based service', as well as changes that devolve accountability as well as management.

While talk of an independent NHS board, as favoured by the Conservatives, seems to have been buried, there are likely to be measures to give local people, and their representatives, a greater say in the running of services. The big question is whether there will be less emphasis on alternative providers from the private and voluntary sectors.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has been spared big structural changes after its rebirth in May 2006, but can expect a new focus on strengthening local responsibility. Hazel Blears is much more than a bouncy eternal optimist. She has a strong record as a departmental minister and is committed to locally based regeneration, as in her native Salford. John Healey has been appointed as local government minister with the brief of taking forward the response to Sir Michael Lyons' report. In his previous role in the Treasury, he worked closely with Ed Balls to develop ideas for local council co-operation on economic regeneration and city regions, as in a pamphlet they wrote for the New Local Government Network.

Yvette Cooper will remain housing minister and will attend meetings of the Cabinet, reflecting the high priority to be placed on housing. Blears and Cooper will have to develop a better relationship than the latter did with Ruth Kelly (now at Transport) if the department is to work effectively and harmoniously.

All these departments will, however, face a familiar constraint – although all five Treasury ministers have changed, the main lines of policy will remain the same. Darling is a close ally of the new prime minister, and knows what he wants: a stable economy and no stories about Treasury/Downing Street splits. Andy Burnham, promoted to chief secretary after an impressive year at Health, will have to complete the Comprehensive Spending Review, which was left in suspended animation by the change of prime minister.

All these decisions will be taken within the framework of a slowdown in public spending growth from more than 5% a year in real terms to under 2%. We already know that this means budgets being frozen, or even cut, in real terms for some central departments.

The future plans for health, defence and local government have yet to be decided. Health will again be favoured, though with a slower growth than in recent years. But the news is bound to be grim for local government. Change there is, but not all of it will be for the better for the public sector and local government.

Peter Riddell is chief political commentator of The Times


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