Reading the runes of a minor reshuffle

12 Aug 99
In another age, there were people known as Kremlinologists. These experts would be wheeled out on British television and radio to discuss the significance of every minor change in personnel made to the Soviet Union's ruling Politburo.

13 August 1999

So there was a sense of déjà vu when Tony Blair announced his limited Cabinet reshuffle. The big names remained though there was some movement at the margins. After the weeks of anticipation, the changes were such an anti-climax they left political commentators deflated. But, as any Kremlinologist would tell you, who doesn't move is equally as important as who does.

Those looking for an insight into the way public sector policies are going to develop under New Labour will have learnt much from the minor reshuffle.

The Private Finance Initiative was always likely to remain central to the government's programme. But the retention of Alan Milburn as chief secretary to the Treasury shows what a priority it is. He is a solid performer, on his way up the ministerial ladder, and enthusiastically shares the Blairite vision. Milburn also has experience of the PFI as a minister in the Department of Health.

At the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, another Blair loyalist, Hilary Armstrong, featured prominently among what little intrigue there was. That she kept hold of her local government brief spells a clear message, according to Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics.

'I think Hilary Armstrong not moving is Downing Street's confirmation that the modernisation of local government is to continue apace,' he says. 'She is a leading example of a minister with a safe pair of hands and is clearly well trusted in Downing Street.'

That last point was emphasised by the numbers moved out from the DETR. The mini-purge of Prescott supporters not only left Armstrong unscarred, but also strengthened her position. Her former parliamentary private secretary, Beverley Hughes, has been made a junior minister for local government. Hughes, MP for Stretford and Urmston, is a former leader of Trafford Metropolitan Borough Council and is seen as a moderniser.

John Williams at the New Local Government Network says her move should strengthen those pushing for reform at a local level as it is the first time Armstrong has had a deputy.

Housing moved up the list of policy priorities, with the promotion of Nick Raynsford as housing minister. It was previously held by Armstrong as part of a double brief. The Chartered Institute of Housing has backed the move and Travers says it is long overdue as housing is 'subject to such baroque complexity'. Also drafted in at the DETR were Lord MacDonald of Tradeston, to oversee transport, and veteran left-winger Chris Mullin, to support Raynsford.

Another area upgraded was information technology. At the Department of Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt was appointed as the country's first 'e-minister', to promote electronic commerce. One of her first tasks will be to ensure that the Electronic Communications Bill, published last Friday, gets through Parliament.

What has clearly moved down New Labour's agenda is regional government. Armstrong, never the most enthusiastic about regions, has been given the brief while Dick Caborn, a strong advocate, has been moved to the DTI. 'Caborn was, more than any other minister, a dedicated exponent of the importance of regional development agencies, with the strong presumption that this was the beginning rather than the end of the process. Moving him on is a specific statement about the government's priorities,' says Travers.

It appears Labour is still not clear what it wants from the English regions and is reluctant to create a further tier of government without some sort of political template. And powerful regional government could provide too strong a counterbalance to one of Number 10's big ideas – directly elected mayors for the major cities. Armstrong is not expected to come up with any answers before the next general election. But regions could become a political hot potato if the Tories decide to pick up the issue of burgeoning English nationalism before any election.

For Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, the reshuffle completed a terrible month. Although the long-awaited Integrated Transport Bill looks like being a priority when Parliament reassembles, Prescott lost four ministerial allies – Helen Liddell, Glenda Jackson and Alan Meale, as well as Caborn. And he is also a supporter of regional government. His 'superministry' is looking as precarious as the English cricket team's middle order. Kremlinologists would give little for his long-term prospects.

What's new in the departments

Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

  • Hilary Armstrong made minister for the regions as well as local government.

  • Beverley Hughes appointed local government parliamentary under-secretary.

  • Nick Raynsford appointed minister of state for housing, planning and London.

  • Chris Mullin becomes a parliamentary under-secretary dealing with housing

  • Lord MacDonald of Tradeston appointed a minister of transport.


  • Stephen Timms appointed financial secretary

  • Melanie Johnson appointed economic secretary

Department for Education and Employment

  • Jacqui Smith, Malcolm Wicks and Michael Wills appointed parliamentary under-secretaries

Department of Trade and Industry

  • Patricia Hewitt made 'e-minister'

  • Richard Caborn made a minister of state


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