There are many problems with government reshuffles, and a new guest paper from former civil servant Tim Leunig sets out how they could work better. But Tim Durrant argues that for all the value of opening up the process there is little chance of a prime minister wanting to cede control of the way ministers are currently appointed
Three ministerial appointments took place yesterday, and there is apparently a more extensive reshuffle planned for the autumn. So now is a good time to consider what reshuffles actually achieve and why prime ministers undertake them in the first place. Former senior civil servant Tim Leunig has set out in a new IfG guest paper the problems with reshuffles and a radically different way of doing them.
There is much in Tim’s piece that makes sense. Hopefully the prime minister’s next reshuffle will be shaped by his views on who would be best suited to which job. The appointment of David Johnston – a 2019 MP who has worked in education policy for many years – to the Department for Education in yesterday’s mini-shuffle, is a positive sign. But, while Tim’s ambitions for a more rational system are to be applauded, the person he needs to persuade will be the staunchest defender of the current system – the prime minister.
A reshuffle is not a rational way of appointing people
Government ministers have incredibly important jobs: they make decisions on policies which affect the wellbeing of everyone in the country. It might be expected that they would be appointed to their roles based on their experience in managing large organisations and their knowledge and experience of their new policy area. Unfortunately, this is very rarely the case.
As Tim says, the current appointment process is rushed, with little thought given to whether a minister shares a prime minister’s priorities or to how the new ministerial team in a department will work together. Because jobs are handed out in isolation, it is difficult for a PM to convey an overarching vision for their new government team, and any reshuffle is at risk of descending into chaos if one person refuses to accept the job they are offered.
More importantly, frequent reshuffles are damaging to the day-to-day work of government. A new minister takes time to get up to speed with the policies and relationships they have inherited, and frequent changes of minister can derail important programmes as each seeks to make their own mark.
And of course, no other sector appoints senior leaders like this. The idea that large businesses, schools or even government departments would appoint their leaders based on who the chair gets on with and what kind of ‘message’ their appointment would send is absurd. So there is much to criticise in the way reshuffles currently work.
A new system risks taking control away from the PM
But a prime minister would need to be convinced that their ability to wield the power of patronage was not diminished by any changes to the way reshuffles work. Firstly, the suggestion of setting out clearly when a reshuffle will take place removes the power of the rumoured reshuffle – something many PMs have made use of in recent years. Briefing to the newspapers that government jobs may be changing hands is a way of bringing both rebellious ministers and recalcitrant backbenchers into line, as they seek to hold on to, or advance, their position on the greasy pole.
A major reshuffle is also a chance for the prime minister to set out their vision and ask colleagues to commit to it. As Tim says, previous prime ministers have appointed ministers who had fundamental issues with their priorities – but that could be solved by a prime minister being clear about what they want, without needing a whole new way of doing reshuffles. Another of Tim’s criticisms is that the prime minister barely knows which junior role they are giving to which person, which is undoubtedly true. But again, fixing that doesn’t require a new system – it just requires a prime minister to care both about the role and the person they are appointing to it.
Written proposals on how a prospective minister would approach a role would force both the leader and the MP to set out their thinking, but it also risks seeing a party negotiating on its priorities behind the scenes, rather than presenting a united front. A period of intense lobbying by backbench MPs, keen to present their ideas to the prime minister and his top team – might clog up Downing Street and distract from the day-to-day business of government in the same way as a normal reshuffle.
Reshuffles aren’t perfect – but they could be fixed without a complicated new process
One important suggestion from Tim’s piece is that a prime minister should quickly hold a full cabinet meeting where they set out what they want their new team to deliver. Generally, the cabinet only meets a week or so after a reshuffle, and it is very much a camera opportunity rather than a detailed discussion of the team’s key priorities.
Tim’s diagnosis of the problems of reshuffles is correct, and many of his proposals would make the process more rational and lead to better outcomes – which is appealing to anyone who cares about effective government. But at the same time, they would take some of the politics (and political theatre) out of reshuffle day – and it is the politics that prime ministers capitalise on when rearranging their top team, to reassert their dominance over their government. Prime ministers should absolutely think about how they run reshuffles but the best advice is not to have so many in the first place.