Political leadership

After six years under the leadership of David Cameron, Britain has a new Prime Minister: Theresa May. As she prepares for the political challenges of Brexit, May has made significant changes both to the personnel in government and to the machinery of government (creating three new departments), which have added to the burden on Whitehall.

Creating new departments and appointing new ministers might allow May to put her stamp on Whitehall, but reshaping government and having a high ministerial turnover can be a distraction from the business of government. Those who supported the campaign to leave the European Union are better represented than under Cameron, but Remainers – and men – continue to dominate across government. May could also be more hands-on than Cameron – for example, she chairs a higher percentage of Cabinet committees.

The new departments created a distraction and increased burden for Whitehall.

May’s Government was responsible for the creation of the first new departments since the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills was established in 2009, representing a break from departmental continuity under Cameron.[1] The new departments are Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS, formed out of the abolished BIS and Department of Energy and Climate Change); the Department for International Trade (DIT, formed out of the non-ministerial department UK Trade and Investment, and which acquired trade policy from BIS); and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). Higher education moves from the now-abolished BIS to the Department for Education (DfE). These changes reflect some of May’s policy priorities, most obviously Brexit (DExEU, DIT) and industrial strategy (included in the name of the new BEIS).

Creating new departments can be a costly affair in terms of financial and political capital, as they inevitably take time and resources to set up – DECC’s start-up costs in 2008 were estimated to be £15m – and can provide a distraction from the business of government.[2] Initially there were concerns that a lack of clarity around the roles and responsibilities of the new Brexit departments would lead to incoherence and fragmentation; Brexit negotiations may have been better handled by a unit inside the Cabinet Office rather than a triple-department structure. But there is evidence that DExEU has found its feet relatively quickly, even if none of the new departments was able to report staff numbers in December 2016, which suggests a degree of disruption.[3]

The Prime Minister has said that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be triggered in March 2017, beginning the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.[4] These negotiations will be managed by a number of organisations, which must co-operate effectively to be successful. The Prime Minister will lead negotiations from the top, working directly with EU member states and institutions, with DExEU co-ordinating between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), DIT, UKREP (the UK Permanent Representation to the EU) and other parts of Whitehall.

DExEU, headed by David Davis, is a small co-ordinating department, expected to employ 400 people, which has been given up to £51m for 2016/17, according to the Autumn Statement. It commissions work on Brexit from experts in other departments, as well as working directly with the Prime Minister and EU institutions. DIT is focused on developing international trade expertise and building relationships with countries and trading blocs around the world. It is currently estimated to employ more than 2,000 people and, with FCO, will have £26m a year by 2019/20 to ‘strengthen trade policy capability’. Unlike DExEU, DIT will not play an active role in Brexit negotiations, but it will be of critical importance in preparing for the post-Brexit world. With some other funding, the Brexit departments (DExEU, DIT and FCO) could receive an additional £412m in this parliament; it is not yet clear whether this will be enough. Turf wars and policy disagreements between the Prime Minister’s Office, DExEU, DIT and FCO, and evidence that the civil service as a whole lacks the money, staff and information it needs, suggest that the Government may face difficulties managing Brexit in 2017.[5]

May’s reshuffle kept only five members of the Cabinet in the same role, and put Leavers in key positions.

Only Jeremy Wright (Attorney General), Alun Cairns (Welsh Secretary), David Mundell (Scottish Secretary), Michael Fallon (Defence Secretary) and Jeremy Hunt (Health Secretary) stayed in post. Eleven previous Cabinet attendees – Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Stephen Crabb, Nicky Morgan, Theresa Villiers, John Whittingdale, Mark Harper, Baroness (Tina) Stowell, Oliver Letwin and Anna Soubry – left government. Unusually, four previous attendees accepted ministerial positions outside Cabinet (Matt Hancock, Greg Hands, Baroness (Joyce) Anelay, Robert Halfon).[6]

Such a high level of turnover could have an impact on particular policy areas – for example, the departure of Osborne and the moving from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) of Greg Clark, both strong supporters of devolution, could be one of the reasons for a loss of momentum on localism.[7] Three important positions were filled with Leave-voting Tory MPs: Boris Johnson (FCO), David Davis (DExEU) and Liam Fox (DIT). With 27 attendees, May’s Cabinet is the smallest since the end of Tony Blair’s premiership.[8]

Only at the MoD did more than half of ministers remain in post.

In three departments, all ministers were replaced as May put together her administration: the Cabinet Office (CO), DfID and MoJ. It is usually junior ministers who lead the implementation of departmental policies, so high churn could carry costs for the effectiveness of government; this is a particular concern when Brexit is likely to attract political attention, energy and resources.[9] As well as MoD, DfE, DH and DfT saw some continuity in their junior ministerial team, suggesting that existing policies will continue, at least in the short run.[10]

There was also a reduction in the number of ministers in some departments across government. CO lost half of its pre-reshuffle ministers, and MoJ lost three ministerial posts, going from seven ministers to four. The new BEIS has six ministers – its predecessors BIS (eight) and DECC (three) had eleven between them.[11]

Men, and those who voted to remain in the EU, continue to dominate the Government.

The percentage of full Cabinet members who are women increased slightly with May’s reshuffle, although a slightly lower percentage of all Cabinet attendees and all government ministers are female. This is still higher than the percentage of Conservative MPs who are women. In four departments, half or more of the ministers were women following the reshuffle and all these departments are headed by a female secretary of state: DfID (Priti Patel), Defra (Andrea Leadsom), the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS, Karen Bradley) and the Home Office (Amber Rudd). (Changes since mean DfID and DCMS are no longer 50% female).[12] The gender balance on Cabinet committees has also improved, with the proportion of places going to women increasing from 22% to 30%.[13]

Since the reshuffle in July, representation of Leavers in Cabinet has increased from 17% to 25%. Across all government ministers, the increase has been less pronounced (from 17% to 18%). The percentage of Cabinet ministers who voted to leave the EU remains some way behind the percentage of Tory MPs who supported Leave (42%). This proportion is still shy of the 51.9% who voted for Brexit in the referendum on 23 June.[14]

As the Government prepares for Brexit, only one Cabinet committee – the European Union Exit and Trade Committee – is evenly balanced between those who supported Remain and those who supported Leave in the referendum. (Three additional ministers attend ‘when required’, and all are Remainers).

Cabinet committees reflect May’s priorities, including Brexit and industrial strategy.

Cabinet committees – ‘groups of ministers that can take collective decisions that are binding across government’ – are where a lot of government business gets done. The latest list – published following a Freedom of Information request from the Institute for Government – shows that May has fewer than David Cameron, and these reflect her priorities: Brexit, industrial strategy, extremism and modern slavery. Committees that don’t appear to have been reconstituted in some form include the one dealing with health and social care, despite the pressures the sector faces.[15]

Clark (BEIS) is able to attend the most committees (16, plus one of the National Security Council sub-committees ‘as required’), replacing Letwin (CO), who attended the most Cabinet committees under Cameron. This roving brief could mean there is some substance behind the Prime Minister’s commitment to an industrial strategy.[16] Leading Leave supporters may attend a number of committees (particularly the EU Exit and Trade Committee) but none chairs a committee.

Theresa May has already said she is using the Cabinet committees for ‘policy development’, ‘reinstat[ing] what might be described as a more traditional way of doing government’. But her approach to chairing may also be a sign of her leadership style, described by a former colleague as ‘want[ing] a lot of control’. She chairs 10 committees, fewer than David Cameron’s 11, but a greater proportion of the whole – half (48%) compared to a third (35%).[17]