Reshuffle: the verdict

5 Sep 12
Akash Paun

The Institute for Government has set out a number of lessons for prime ministers planning to change their ministerial teams. As the dust settles, how does the coalition's first reshuffle match up?

As a demonstration of prime ministerial predominance, this week’s government reshuffle produced a mixed picture. On the Conservative side, the prime minister made extensive changes to his team – with half the party’s Cabinet seats changing hands.

But none of the very top jobs changed – at the Treasury, Home Office and Foreign Office – and David Cameron failed to persuade Iain Duncan Smith to move from Welfare & Pensions to the Ministry of Justice.

One of the problems with reshuffles is that they highlight a prime minister’s weakness as much as his power. They also rarely solve the government’s big problems, and carry risks of their own.

Cameron could have learnt from Harold Wilson, who set out an important lesson when he was at Number Ten that ‘there has to be a central strategy in Cabinet formation which must reflect the prime minister’s broader political and policy strategy’. Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 purge of the ‘wets’ in favour of Thatcherite believers is a textbook example.

Did Cameron’s reshuffle have such clarity of purpose? Economic recovery now drives this government. Yet coalition politics make the adoption of a single unifying strategy difficult – with Vince Cable impregnable at the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills. Instead, the PM and Chancellor sought to make this an ‘economic reshuffle’ via changes at the lower ranks (including through the appointment of Locog head Paul Deighton).

A well-executed reshuffle can be an effective way to change policy direction. The changes at the Department of Transport are being widely interpreted as enabling such a shift on the question of airport capacity. Other areas to watch will include justice and the environment (with many expecting a swing to the right).

Yet on the central issues of deficit reduction and public service reform, this was a reshuffle that signalled no change. Its purpose is to keep the government on track with implementation of policies already agreed, not to shift direction.

A sensible PM will also think about how not just who he reshuffles. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, lamented in our report on how ‘today’s broadly loyal minister is tomorrow’s bitter and backbiting backbencher’.

Cameron sought to reduce this risk by keeping the number of outright sackings to a minimum. Notably, Ken Clarke, Sayeeda Warsi and Andrew Lansley were all retained in government – and indeed will still sit at the Cabinet table. This gambit has its limits, however, and future reshuffles will inevitably add to the ranks of the resentful.

Reshuffles may be – as a former Downing Street official put it – ‘the antithesis of a normal selection process’ but prime ministers can match skills and experience to jobs to some extent. But for the most part, it is generic political skills rather than subject expertise that a PM looks for –  Jeremy Hunt to Health and Justine Greening to International Development fit this pattern.

The Deighton appointment is an exception, with the new Minister for Infrastructure and Economic Delivery brought in because of his professional experience.

While seeking the best person for each job, the PM must negotiate a number of balancing acts. Gender balance has long been a thorn in the coalition’s side, and there were some attempts to rectify this – principally at the junior appointments. The balance between wings of the Conservative Party also seems to have shifted to the right – though the coalition context limits the likely impact on policy direction.

This, of course, was the first coalition reshuffle, with a number of different considerations to take into account. The party balance in Cabinet remained fixed, but there were some interesting changes at lower levels. The Liberal Democrats took posts in Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and International Development (and a more senior role in the Home Office) for the first time – leaving the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence entirely in Conservative hands (unless Lords ministers are latterly appointed).

This will give the smaller party a greater influence over the important areas of criminal justice and environment policy, and also a greater ability to ‘differentiate’ when the two parties clash (as may occur more often, if the appointment of Chris Grayling and Owen Paterson to the Ministry of Justice and Defra does herald a rightward shift on the Conservative side).

Finally, we noted that behind the scenes there is a complex logistical operation going on to support the PM on reshuffle day, with much that can go wrong. From the outside, this week’s reshuffle was quite a smooth affair, though future memoirs will no doubt reveal a few hiccups on the day.

Judging the effectiveness of a reshuffle (especially the day after the event) is a difficult and perhaps pointless business. The process seemed to work fine, there was a logic if no grand strategy to the changes, and few noses unnecessarily put out of joint. But the big challenges facing the government are the state of the economy, successful implementation of its major public service reforms, and growing tensions between Conservatives and LibDems.

A quick game of Cabinet musical chairs is unlikely to solve such huge issues, though these, ultimately, are the yardsticks against which the coalition will be judged.

Akash Paun is senior researcher at the Institute for Government. The Institute for Government published Shuffling the Pack: A brief guide to government reshuffles on 31 August 2012

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