Cabinet reshuffles should be based on policy, not personality

In most circumstances, there is nothing wrong with a reshuffle. In a small organisation, it may allow people to develop their talents by trying different skills. At a busy restaurant with friends, changing seats gives people the opportunity to talk to those who were previously at the other end of the table. And, of course, in a card game, shuffling ensures nothing has been manipulated and no cheating has taken place. Generally, these types of reshuffles are positive experiences that shouldn’t cause any conflict.

The same cannot be said for Cabinet reshuffles. The reshuffling, resignations, hiring and firing of ministers inevitably brings discontent, disagreement and outrageous indignation by all parties involved. However smoothly a change in government may appear, there will always be individuals left unhappy at the outcome. It is often argued that there is never a good time to have a reshuffle.

It was believed that the recent February reshuffle would be performed in similar advantageous circumstances to Boris Johnson’s first reshuffle when entering Downing Street. Upon becoming Prime Minister in July 2019, the removal of more than half of Theresa May’s cabinet was justifiable, because he anchored a new government. This reshuffle has not gone the same way. Instead of the Prime Minister reshaping his government by using the strength of his election victory, he has undoubtedly been weakened by the surprise resignation of his Chancellor Sajid Javid. Other disappointed ministers, which are inevitable in any reshuffle, include the former Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom and former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox. The government, however, does remain powerful with a 80 seat majority and the next general election more than four years away.

This government was supposed to be one of innovation and renewal: ideas that sound appealing but mean nothing without concrete policies. Though the UK’s negotiations with the EU are by no means ‘done’, the level of attention given to our future trade relationship will receive far less attention than the act of leaving. Instead, Boris Johnson is defining himself by domestic policy: investing in communities through transport, education funding and new hospitals. It is in stark opposition to the previous decade of Conservative governance that was defined by austerity to reduce the deficit.

New ministers, like the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and International Development Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan must define the purpose of their departments. As is always the case in a parliamentary democracy, the main aim for the Tories is to win another five years in power in 2024. There is only a likelihood of that taking place if voters notice a change in their area between now and then. It is unfortunate then, that much of the discussion framing the reshuffle focuses not on new policy areas to improve the nation but instead the political rivalries and whether individuals are allies of the Prime Minister.

It is of course important who a Secretary of State is, both in terms of their leadership skills and policy direction. That will massively impact the success of a department and whether it is effective at delivering change. But to frame future Cabinet appointments entirely around whether a minister gets on with Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s senior adviser, is a dereliction of duty both to the department and the country. Most of the public are not interested in the personalities of politics but whether change is delivered. In 20 years time, voters are unlikely to remember the specific Secretary of State of a department - they are likely to remember the consequences, good or bad, of the policies implemented.

The focus however, on predicting who will enter and exit the Cabinet, has meant that debate and speculation over the government’s broader policy direction has been pushed to one side. Instead of looking at the government’s future environment policy, especially in relation to climate change, political coverage has simply focused on the departure of Theresa Villers, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Similarly, the future for Northern Ireland as a part of the UK has been put on the back foot compared to the departure of Julian Smith. It is damning on both politicians and the media that policy should be second to speculation of which backbench MPs will be promoted.

Personality can play a meaningful part when discussing government departments, but only in relation to policy. For example, Michael Gove - the Cabinet Office minister - is regarded as an authoritative, controversial figure within government. But, in each of his departments, he has proven himself as an effective, innovative policy maker. As Education Secretary, he reformed GCSEs and A-levels, introduced free schools and continued New Labour’s academy programme. As Justice Secretary, he adopted a liberal approach by ensuring prisoners could receive books. At the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he introduced new laws on micro-beads, diesel and petrol cars and animal welfare. He has been an effective Cabinet Minister, which his innovative personality no doubt influenced. But it is his personality in relation to the policies implemented which is most important and therefore worthy of discussion.

The Cabinet reshuffle is also not raising proper questions of concern that should be important matters of government discussion. It should be a real privilege to sit in the Cabinet of the UK. A worthwhile reform that the Prime Minister could undertake is to reduce the size of the Cabinet by removing the title of Minsters ‘attending Cabinet.’ Only full Secretaries of State should be able to sit around the Cabinet table. Is this receiving any attention? Not that I can see. Similarly, the Prime Minister must ensure collective responsibility continues within his Cabinet. Everyone could witness the consequences of Theresa May’s government having repeated leaks and ministers departing from the government narrative. One only has to look at the New Labour years to realise that even a government with a majority the size of Boris Johnson’s is highly likely to contain rebellious figures.

The UK’s political culture for decades has been defined by leadership and personality, not least towards the office of Prime Minister. The ability to create a vision and win the public over is an art not all can master. Indeed, it was Theresa May’s inability to communicate that perhaps sped up her downfall from office. But personality - whether referring to the Prime Minister or Secretary of State - shouldn’t be a top or secondary priority. Their competence at managing their specific department, implementing policies and crafting a narrative for the UK must take precedence. Boris Johnson must use the flexibility a large majority gives him not to engage in petty spats or rivalries but to really deliver recognisable, transformative change for those that propelled him into office last Christmas.

Photo: Flickr, Pippa Fowles/No10 Downing Street

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