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Explainer

Government reshuffles

A reshuffle is when government ministers are moved between posts.

What is a reshuffle?

A reshuffle is when government ministers are moved between posts. They can be relatively minor – for example, if a minister resigns and needs to be replaced – or they can be quite significant transformations, with several cabinet ministers changing departments or leaving government, and ministerial roles (or even entire departments) being created or removed.

Reshuffles also occur when a new prime minister from the same party takes office between general elections. They may choose to keep some of the ministerial team of their predecessor but usually make a significant number of new appointments.

When a general election results in a different party taking office, the entire government is replaced, though the process of appointing ministers occurs in the same way as during reshuffles.

Why do prime ministers decide to hold reshuffles?

  • Cabinet and party management: The appointment and dismissal of ministers is an important part of a prime minister’s power. Through their patronage, they can reward loyalty and punish dissent, build alliances, and manage their party by making sure all the factions within it feel represented in government.
  • Performance management: Reshuffles are an opportunity to promote high-performing ministers by moving them into positions of greater responsibility, and to remove those not doing well in an attempt to improve departmental performance.
  • To signal policy shifts: Moving ministers around can be a way of indicating a government’s priorities. Adding new ministerial roles or changing which ministers can attend cabinet during a reshuffle is another way of doing this, as is making changes to the responsibilities of government departments. In 2023, for example, Rishi Sunak made changes to four government departments and created a new cabinet post to signal emphasis on energy security and innovation.
  • To refresh: Reshuffles are a way to avoid seeming stale, and to introduce newer and younger MPs to the government. Refreshing the government through a reshuffle can be an attractive option when a government is unpopular – in May 2006, following disappointing local election results for Labour, Tony Blair held a wide-ranging reshuffle.
  • Because of events beyond their control: Prime ministers can be forced to reshuffle their government for unexpected reasons – for example, if a minister resigns, loses their seat in an election, or can no longer serve in the government for any other reason.

Are there disadvantages to reshuffles?

A 100% stacked bar chart from the Institute for Government showing the proportion of ministers in each department by appointing prime minister, where all ministers in some departments, like DfE, have all been appointed by Rishi Sunak, and others, like the Northern Ireland Office, are largely unchanged.
  • Ministerial churn: Excessive turnover makes it harder for individual ministers to build up expertise about their department, and makes it harder for parliament to hold ministers to account for the outcomes of their action. Regularly changing a department’s leadership can harm policy implementation and result in wasteful changes of direction. Since 1997, the average tenure of a cabinet minister has been less than two years.
  • Empowering political rivals: Using reshuffles as a means of exercising party discipline can backfire. When a prime minister sends a critical rival to the backbenches, they release them from collective cabinet responsibility. This makes them free to criticise the government openly, potentially undermining the prime minister’s authority.
  • Can reveal weakness: It is not uncommon for ministers to be unhappy with the outcome of a reshuffle. For promotions to take place, there usually need to be some demotions, or at least sideways moves. Sometimes ministers may refuse to take up a less prestigious position and threaten to resign if not left in place. This happened in 2009, when Gordon Brown tried to move Alistair Darling from the Treasury, and in 2018, when Theresa May tried to move Jeremy Hunt from the Department of Health and Social Care. On both occasions, the prime minister opted to back down rather than lose the minister to the backbenches, revealing an unfavourable balance of power between PM and cabinet.

How often do reshuffles happen?

Since Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997, there have been 26 cabinet reshuffles – involving three or more secretary of state moves in a two-day period – as well as three sets of initial appointments at the beginning of a new government (in 1997, 2010 and 2015). 

A chart from the Institute for Government showing the change in cabinet ministers from May 2010 to December 2023, where the rate of change has increased markedly in recent years.

Three of these reshuffles occurred in the aftermath of general elections: in 2001, 2005 and 2017. There is no obligation to hold a reshuffle in these circumstances but prime ministers often choose to have one. They may do so for a range of reasons, such as to reward ministers for their campaigning roles or to shore up support for their premiership.

All five prime ministers who have been appointed between general elections since 1997 have chosen to reshuffle the cabinet of their predecessor. Upon entering office in October 2022, Rishi Sunak made 13 new appointments to his cabinet.

How many ministers move posts at a reshuffle?

Since 1997, an average of nine full cabinet posts have changed hands at reshuffles. Reshuffles that follow the appointment of a new prime minister usually result in even more extensive changes, with an average of more than 18 new appointments or moves among the full membership of cabinet.

Certain cabinet positions are reshuffled more often than others. For example, there have been nine chancellors of the exchequer since 1997, but 17 work and pensions secretaries since 2001. Some junior ministerial positions have even higher turnover: there have been 25 housing ministers since 1997. 

How do reshuffles work in other government systems?

Reshuffles are most common in parliamentary systems, where ministers are drawn from the legislature.

In political systems where the executive and legislative branches of government are separated, reshuffles are less common. This may be because ministers are often appointed on the basis of their qualifications to oversee a specific department or policy area, rather than for reasons of patronage and party management.

In some countries, cabinet appointments by the executive need to be approved by the legislature, which also provides an incentive to avoid regular changes of post – this is the case in the US, where the Senate has to confirm appointments.

Topic
Ministers
Publisher
Institute for Government

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