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Government reshuffles: the case for keeping ministers in post longer

Boris Johnson should keep his ministers in place – excessive turnover means they never get properly on top of their brief.

Boris Johnson is said to be ready to reshuffle his ministerial team in February – this report warns that he should then keep his ministers in place. Excessive ‘churn’ means they never get properly on top of their brief. This has undermined the effectiveness of UK government in recent decades.

The length of time a UK secretary of state stays in the job is now closer to that of a football manager than a CEO in the private sector, and almost a year shorter than the equivalent in Germany. Longer tenures would provide continuity and give the government the best chance of delivering on its most ambitious promises such as ‘levelling up’ the country.

This report sets out the debilitating level of turnover in key roles and departments, several of which have been particularly hard hit:

  • There have been 18 housing ministers since 1997, despite successive governments’ stated aims to address the housing crisis.
  • There have been six different work and pensions secretaries in the last four years, a period in which the government has tried to implement its ambitious Universal Credit reforms.
  • Robert Buckland is the seventh justice secretary since 2010, with the constant turnover at the Ministry of Justice coming at a time when prisons have struggled to deal with rising violence.

Ministers are often moved on just as they get to grips with their role, and departments suffer constant changes in direction. This has crippled efforts to deliver long-term reform in areas where Johnson’s government is promising progress, such as further education and industrial strategy.

While some ministerial moves are necessary or unavoidable, the report argues that the prime minister should:

  • Set an expectation that secretaries of state stay in post for at least three years, and junior ministers for at least two years.
  • Avoid frequent reshuffles.
  • Improve the process of ministerial handovers and discourage constant policy reinvention.
Institute for Government

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