Same old, same old

3 Oct 08
NICK COMFORT | Governments get tired, and so do ministers. That is why prime ministers are tempted every so often — as Gordon Brown has so publicly been — not just to reshuffle the pack but to bring in new faces.

Governments get tired, and so do ministers. That is why prime ministers are tempted every so often — as Gordon Brown has so publicly been — not just to reshuffle the pack but to bring in new faces.


The signs, as Public Finance went to press, were that the financial crisis would limit the extent of the reshuffle, but Ruth Kelly’s intention to quit as transport secretary, and the odd retirement (and sacking) further down the government, has made some changes inevitable.

The trick, for any prime minister, is not only to keep the Cabinet looking fresh, but to maintain its level of ability and expertise — and the latter is more of a problem.

The longer governments are in power, the higher the rate of attrition; Kelly is not the first Cabinet member to want to spend more time with her family. And after well over a decade in office, Labour is suffering from a dearth of frontline talent, like the Conservatives before them.

The past three decades have seen a long period of Conservative rule followed by a Labour government of almost equal longevity. And the Brown administration, like its Tory predecessor, has started to run out of ministerial seedcorn.

Each has used up talent faster than promising new blood has come through. This partly explains the absence of a heavyweight challenger to Brown — and, indeed, to John Major in 1995.

The top five in Tony Blair’s first government were big hitters: John Prescott, Brown, Robin Cook, Jack Straw and Derry Irvine. Now they are (arguably) Harriet Harman, Alistair Darling, David Miliband, Jacqui Smith and (again) Straw. With no disrespect to anyone, there has been a loss of muscle.

Margaret Thatcher’s original

A-team comprised Willie Whitelaw, Geoffrey Howe, Lord Carrington and Lord Hailsham. When Major came to power after the same length of time Labour has now been in office, his was made up of Michael Heseltine, Norman Lamont, Douglas Hurd, Kenneth Baker and Lord Mackay.

It is in the lower reaches of the Cabinet that a government’s longevity really tells. Towards the end of Major’s administration, resignations were being refused because there simply weren’t any ready replacements. And Gordon Brown must have felt much the same in preparing his reshuffle.

In ten years, Blair got through no fewer than 51 Cabinet ministers; Brown had already promoted nine more before Kelly said she was going. The Cabinet has 22 members, so 38 ministers — 3.3 a year — have been discarded.

Thatcher called up 58 colleagues for Cabinet service, and Major two more: an identical churn rate. Has new talent come through as fast? I doubt it.

Ministers leave for many reasons. A few fall out with their leader on policy: Howe, Heseltine, Cook, Clare Short. Others become too controversial: Cecil Parkinson, Jonathan Aitken, Ron Davies, Peter Mandelson.

Some decide the job is taking too much out of them: John Nott, Norman Fowler, Alan Milburn, Estelle Morris. And others leave to take on a job: John MacGregor, George Robertson, Donald Dewar. Some are found wanting: David Howell, John Moore, Chris Smith, Nick Brown (now rehabilitated). Anno Domini accounts for very few.

Most ministers who left the Thatcher/Major and Blair/Brown Cabinets were discarded because their faces didn’t seem fresh any more. It wasn’t a case of younger men and women displaying ability so devastating that they had to be accommodated.

Early in the life of any government, one or two front-rank ministers will prove spectacularly unfit for the job — such as Tom Fraser, Labour’s transport minister from 1964. Or they will forfeit the confidence of the prime minister, as Norman St John-Stevas did as leader of the House in Thatcher’s first government.

At that stage in a government’s life, there will be youngish ministers of state who have proved their competence and have strong claims to be promoted. But after 11 years, they are few and far between.

The performance, and image, of reshuffled governments seldom improves much. Indeed, some reshuffles — notably Harold Macmillan’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ — actively cause political damage.

The coming and going of ministers just for the sake of it also hinders the effective operation of their departments, as officials have no sooner got used to one minister than another has to bed in.

I am not suggesting Thatcher should have kept her 1979 Cabinet until its members fell off their perches, or that Brown should not bring in new faces.

But the longer a government holds power, the more it risks using up its talent. And this enables a revived Opposition to argue — as the Conservatives did this week — that lack of experience is no bar to office.

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