Reshuffle gives business focus

30 Jul 98
Labour is coming under renewed pressure to clarify its welfare reform policies after Frank Field's attack on Gordon Brown in the Commons this week.

31 July 1998

Following the government reshuffle and Mr Field's resignation Labour now finds itself having to convince outsiders that it is still intent on welfare reform.

Prime minister Tony Blair's shuffling of the government pack this week re-affirmed its commitment to modernisation in other departments outside social security as well as an inclination to concentrate power in Number Ten.

Although key changes to personnel were kept to a minimum, the phalanx of new ministers – at Cabinet and junior rank – moving into their new departments were generally those who adhere to the Blairite agenda. This may be bad news for Brown but for the public sector it shows continuity with the government's existing stance.

The basic message from this week's changes appears to be that the general policy thrust of widespread reform will not change. What is less certain, though, is the speed of reform.

This could well be accelerated in areas such as local government, housing and education as the government from top to bottom seems even more full than before of zealous Blairites anxious to prove their loyalty. Welfare reform now becomes the biggest policy area of contention and the social security department could be one of the most interesting departments to watch over the coming months.

The biggest name on the move is up-and-coming Stephen Byers. His mark on the public sector may be more profound now he has moved to the Treasury from education. Not knowing simple multiplications appears to be no handicap to working at the heart of the government's finances. This Dan Quayle-like error has been the reforming minister's only gaffe and his passion for the party line makes it likely that his star will stay in the ascendant.

What is more interesting is his now close proximity to Brown. Number Ten appears to have consolidated its position this week at the expense of Number Eleven and there are few better examples of that than the promotion of Mr Byers.

His penchant for using the private sector to find solutions to public sector problems at the education department – for example, Education Action Zones – echoes another theme of the reshuffle, namely the ever-increasing use of business acumen by Labour.

Business people use business practices. And it is hard to believe that a government consisting of the Lords Sainsbury and Simon – a former British Petroleum chairman – and Geoffrey Robinson, let alone a prime minister apparently in thrall to the City, would seek anything other than corporate solutions.

Alongside Mr Byers will be Patricia Hewitt, an appointment which raised eyebrows in some quarters. Like him she is on the modernising wing of the party.

Mr Byers' place at education has been filled by Estelle Morris, previously under-secretary of state for school standards.

In all there are three new faces at the education department. Yet one officer in the Local Government Association's education department claimed it was 'business as usual' following this week's movements.

Local government was hardly touched. The policy line also seems to be more of the same. Lord Whitty, better known as Larry Whitty and the former general secretary of the Labour party, becomes the new Lords' spokesman for transport, environment and the regions.

Alan Milburn at the health department stays put, as does Tessa Jowell. This appears to suggest that his central role in pushing through health reforms is too important to the government to jeopardise at the moment.


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