Shuffling the ministerial deck

11 Jan 18

Jonathan Werran of Localis surveys this week’s reshuffle to discern what can be read into the future direction of local government finance, housing, devolution and social care.

Matters must have come to something when arch party loyalist Sir Nicholas Soames MP channelled the title of The Strokes first album to tweet ‘Is this it?’ at the half-way mark of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle.

But in all honesty, what did anyone expect from a political event fired in the crucible of May’s persistent political instability?

Reshuffles are a legitimate way for a prime minister to re-energise the government team, repurpose departments and signal clear priorities to the electorate.

Trite and tired references to shifting deckchairs on the Titanic can easily roll off the tongue, and perhaps not entirely undeservedly. That said, even a reshuffle as clumsily choreographed as this piece of political theatre has its merits.

To dismiss as empty and meaningless the renaming of the Department for Communities and Local Government to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, or the addition of Social Care to the Department of Health’s title, is in itself, empty and meaningless.

Naming is a creative act. This lexical rearrangement creates a clearing from which strong and meaningful purpose can flow. By placement fore and centre in the organisational title, senior accountability for the crunch issues of housing and social care follows.

The shift in nomenclature from ‘department’ to ‘ministry’ – a title first adopted by Whitehall for the creation of the Ministry of Munitions, headed by Lloyd George to defuse the World War One military-political shells crisis in 1915 – suggests overtones of religious service, perhaps betokening a greater sense of frontline mission.

Beyond mere surface appearances, which Oscar Wilde reminded us only shallow people do not judge by, some deeper thought is at play in what both did and didn’t change.

Firstly the reappointment of Sajid Javid as secretary of state is of itself a good thing. With so many major policy initiatives requiring continuity – fiscal freedom, devolution, housing and building regulation – a change at the top would herald delay and prevarication that local government can ill afford.

Jake Berry’s continuance as minister responsible for the Northern Powerhouse and devolution provides stability in the middle ministerial ranks. Recent publication of the long-delayed devolution progress update confirmed the agenda is playing dead like a possum. With no deals signed in 2016-17, the case for action in delivering immediate devolution for areas covering the two-thirds of England that are without strengthened economic powers makes itself.

The key new appointment is Dominic Raab as housing minister. Raab, a lawyer renowned for a high-calibre intellect and his position as a conviction leave supporter, had been tipped by some pundits for a full cabinet post. 

His switch from the Ministry of Justice to replace Alok Sharma in the hot seat as planning and housing minister will be a worthy challenge. As the sixteenth housing minister in the last 20 years, Raab will be seeking to emulate the success of Harold Macmillan in making housing an election-winning issue and path to higher political glory. His constituency track record in Surrey’s Esher and Walton, which he has represented since first elected to Parliament in 2010, suggests Raab is a staunch defender of the green belt – a position that is in complete sympathy with the prime minister’s position.

Rishi Sunak, who in 2015 succeeded to the seat of that other former golden boy William Hague’s seat in Richmond, Yorkshire, assumes Marcus Jones’ brief. His task will be to untangle the intricacies of a patched-up local government finance system, the vexed problematics of business rates and a council tax system that will have been persevered in aspic for three decades by 2021.

Heather Wheeler, who led the Conservative group in her South Derbyshire constituency prior to joining the Commons in 2010 is an astute choice to mop up the ministerial portfolio. A former member of the Commons communities and local government select committee, Wheeler is a recognised and respected figure on the local government circuit.

Perhaps the most revelatory aspect of the reshuffle arose from Jeremy Hunt’s success in retaining his role. In digging in to be the longest serving health secretary since Norman Fowler, in the 70th year anniversary of the NHS, Hunt adopted social care into his department’s title and control of the pen for the forthcoming green paper on social care funding. 

The widespread ignorance that the old Department of Health had already been responsible for setting social care policy was in itself concerning.

And what follows, follows. The next stage of concern will be on whether these changes presage the shift to Richmond House of social care funding, partially or wholly from local government. Local Government Association chair Lord Porter has already warned that the sector would “be buggered” if it lost responsibility over the money.

He is right. As Nicholas Soames’ famous grandfather remarked in a different context, buggers can’t be choosers.

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