22 June 2016

Whichever way tomorrow’s European Union (EU) referendum goes, it is likely that we’ll see a government reshuffle this year. Here Nicola Hughes considers former ministers’ reflections on the process of reshuffles.

Reshuffles are a key part of any prime minister’s power; a way to reward loyalty and build allies through promotion, and to assert authority over colleagues perceived as poor performers or disloyal through demotion or relegation to the backbenches. Reshuffles can also be used to signal a shift in policy, a fresh start or a sense of party unity; as with Gordon Brown’s 2007 Cabinet, which sought to include both ‘Brownite’ and ‘Blairite’ ministers. The EU referendum campaign has been incredibly divisive. Whether or not it also results in a Conservative leadership battle, there will be tough political decisions to make about how to balance ministers from the Leave and Remain camps.

Unforced reshuffles, i.e. those where the PM is in control and the reshuffle has not been triggered by an individual resignation, are usually highly political acts. Hiring and firing from the government benches is rarely based on objective assessment of a minister’s performance. Most ministers see this as ‘part of the territory’, as former Chief Whip George Young explained:

'…I think when you become a minister, and I have been sacked more times than anyone else – well I have left the government four times – when you become a minister, you know you are there because of the prime minister and the rules of the game are that you can be sacked. You know that and sometimes you are sacked without having done anything wrong; you know that.'

Appointments and promotions in a reshuffle don’t usually take into account an individual’s skills, interests or likely fit with the rest of the team. Sackings can be quick and unexpected. Former Scottish Secretary Michael Moore was dropped in the 2013 reshuffle of the Coalition Cabinet. He felt that at the point he was moved he was 'in a groove… up to the job', and contrasted decisions on political leadership with decisions made in the corporate world:

'You are never going to strip out the reality that politics plays the biggest part… you will get ministers who will be regarded as under-performing but can’t be sacked. You will get others who do brilliantly but, because they don’t have political weight in the party, they can go. So there are limitations. I am not saying you should bring a corporate model of accountability and you will sort all the problems. And we, as a party, I don’t think ever even, not in small groups or in a big group, sat down and said, "Right, how have we done? Let’s be honest to ourselves. What has worked? What hasn’t worked and what the hell do we need to get done in the next three months?"'

In a further contrast to the corporate world, reshuffles do not involve job interviews, preparation time or handover. Some ministers have no idea their appointment is coming ('On the day of the reshuffle… I kept seeing these annoying messages coming up on my phone, which I ignored for a long period. And when I finally looked properly, there was an "Urgent. Get over to the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office."' – Baroness Kramer) and nearly all are thrown straight into the deep-end of ministerial life ('…we had a debate to do on the floor of the House. Someone had to open it. Someone had to close it. And that’s on day one, effectively day one, if you’ve been appointed as I was, late in the afternoon.' – Stephen Hammond).

It might seem haphazard, but the process of reshuffles reflects political realities and is probably here to stay. Changes of Secretaries of State certainly matter, as Ken Clarke reflected: '…it may be that the same party was providing the government, but you could have an astonishing change of policy when the new minister turned up, let alone style.' At more junior levels, reshuffles can also have a big impact on policy implementation. So at the very least party leadership must think carefully about who is suitable for which jobs, what the policy aims as well as the political aims of any reshuffle are, and how to support ministers to thrive in new departments.

Further information

In future blogs we’ll look at how new or reshuffled ministers can make an effective start, and what civil servants need to do to help them achieve their goals in office. Later this year, we’ll be adding interviews with ministers from the last Labour government – many of whom went through regular reshuffles – to the Ministers Reflect site.

Follow #ministersreflect for the latest updates on Twitter.