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The next steps Keir Starmer can take to prioritise ministerial competence

What do Keir Starmer's ministerial appointments reveal about how he wants to govern?

Starmer cabinet
Keir Starmer's cabinet met for the first time on Saturday 6 July.

Keir Starmer’s first set of ministerial appointments shows a welcome emphasis on prioritising competence and experience. Here’s what he should do next to demonstrate he will stick to this approach, says Catherine Haddon

The first Labour cabinet in 14 years is in place and the junior ministerial ranks are being filled. But although the process of appointing ministers is unlikely to ever again be so straightforward for Keir Starmer, the new prime minister’s approach looks promising. The IfG has long argued that ministerial experience and competence, both in appointments and in retention, should be a priority if ministers are to deliver effectively in government – and Starmer appears to be basing his choices on that rationale.  

Politics and patronage matter, however, and will come to play a stronger role as the parliament progresses and ambitious MPs seek to further their careers. Starmer's first reshuffle will inevitably create a cohort of the disappointed and frustrated, and his MPs are yet to form the blocs and groups that will require attention – and promotions – to be kept onside. That said, there are steps he can take to make sure this new focus on competence and capability is maintained.

Starmer’s first appointments were a vote of confidence in his shadow cabinet

Last year, the IfG argued that Starmer should avoid excessive reshuffling of his team in the run up to the election, and maintain as much continuity as possible by appointing shadows to the same posts in government. The prime minister has done just that. His last reshuffle in September 2023 established the team he wanted going into the election, and then into government. All but one of his new cabinet have taken up the same roles they shadowed in opposition, the exception being Thangam Debbonaire. She lost her seat and was replaced by Lisa Nandy, the sole secretary of state taking on a new brief at DCMS. Emily Thornberry has also been replaced by Richard Hermer as Attorney General, who will attend cabinet but not as a full member. Thornberry herself praised Hermer’s experience, though she was disappointed to be left out.  

For new governments, appointing ministers who have already shadowed a brief can be incredibly valuable, particularly if they are entirely new to government. Shadowing a brief builds knowledge about a department’s policies and the challenges it faces, and Labour’s preparation for government team had also done detailed work helping shadows understand the department they were likely to move into. As shadows they will also have built up relationships they can take into government. One of the few things that can be done effectively in opposition is meeting lots of people – frontline staff, the wider sector and the public affected by the department’s policies. It also helps the transition for the civil service: access talks meant shadow ministers knew the people in the department, and allowed officials  to prepare for the new person in charge.

Competence and capability have often been second-order concerns

The appointments as junior ministers of James Timpson and Patrick Vallance on Friday, followed by former cabinet ministers Jacqui Smith and Douglas Alexander on Saturday, suggest that Keir Starmer wants to bolster his ministerial ranks with experience. Starmer also told his new cabinet in their first cabinet meeting that they had been appointed on merit.

Experience and capability have, incredibly, often been ignored when PMs make ministerial appointments, with a need for ministerial competence overlooked due to political demands. Michael Moore, the former Liberal Democrat secretary of state for Scotland, argued that there would always be limitations and "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".  

But if Starmer is deliberately trying to make a change then many ministers will welcome this shift in priorities. Jim Knight, a former Labour minister at the education department and DWP, said that it was a big frustration that there wasn’t "any kind of sense of managing the talent properly and really aligning people and their skills and strengths to where they’d be best deployed as opposed to sort of trying to promote and deal with the patronage and some of the sort of less edifying sides of politics".

Starmer can learn from past failures

If Starmer wants his ministers to prioritise their own capability and delivery, he needs to keep sending the message that this is what they will be judged on over time, and at the next reshuffle. Ministers will always be rated on a wide-range of factors, but few are managed very effectively – in how they can improve – or given constructive feedback. Michael Moore said that he didn’t think his party ever, “even 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?’”  

Previous ministers have said that the big problem at reshuffles was that they didn’t know they weren’t performing well. Delivering such difficult messages can be hard, but George Young, who was a chief whip for David Cameron, said that outgoing ministers welcomed being warned, especially if they were about to be sacked. Francis Maude, who did trial 360 reviews of his performance, said that he would make appraisals compulsory: “the Prime Minister needs to say, ‘All new ministers must do it’”. If Starmer wants to rate performance on merit, he should also think about how he can bring in support for ministers to be better at their job, including the kind of professional development support you would find in any other role.  

A rational approach to appointments and a clear-eyed review of performance do not sit easily with political pressures and party management, and seasoned politicians – and political observers – may will think it impossible, or naïve, for a prime minister to hire and fire his ministers based mostly on their competence and ability. But in any other profession this is how people are recruited and promoted – or why careers stall or end. Speculating about who is up, or down, will always dominate the Westminster bars – and provide plenty of column inches – but that is no reason for the latest occupant of Number 10 to follow the approach of previous prime ministers when he next decides to reshape his ministerial team. The rationale for his first set of appointments looks promising. Pressures and demands will change over time, but Keir Starmer should reflect on whether there is any good reason to follow the tired and tested to destruction model of previous administrations.

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