The Government’s loss of its majority in the 2017 general election and divisions over Brexit in the Cabinet and Conservative Party have made governing more difficult. Resignations of ministers have disrupted Whitehall.
The EU referendum in 2016 and the loss of a Conservative majority in the general election a year later still dominate politics. The Conservatives govern supported by a supply and confidence arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but the Government’s negotiations with the EU on the Irish border have strained that relationship. Brexit divisions within the Conservative Government, the wider Conservative Party and the Labour Opposition have complicated the parliamentary arithmetic further.
Resignations and the Prime Minister’s reshuffles of the Cabinet have led to unprecedented ministerial turnover since the general election – as of 1 January 2019, 21 ministers had resigned, 14 of them over policy. Just over half of all ministers came into their current post in 2018. This has caused significant disruption to the leadership of Whitehall departments, as ministers adjust to new briefs and civil servants adapt to different styles and new priorities.
Brexit has made governing as a parliamentary minority even harder
The Conservatives emerged from the 2017 general election with 317 seats, nudged over the 322 seats required for a working majority by the DUP’s 10 MPs. Labour had 262 MPs elected, but since then have lost six MPs, the whip having been withdrawn from two members, three having resigned it, and one MP having been expelled from the party.
Governing with a minority can be tricky at the best of times (as Labour found out in the late 1970s, for example). But Brexit has added further complexity to the Government’s calculations about whether it can get its business through Parliament.
The Government should be able to rely on its ‘payroll vote’ – those serving as ministers – to support the government position. Altogether, there are 132 ministerial roles (including whips), filled by 95 MPs (some holding more than one position, with the rest filled by peers). But there is also an informal payroll vote, consisting of 41 parliamentary private secretaries (PPSs) – unpaid parliamentary aides – as well as vice-chairs of the Conservative Party and trade envoys (totalling 28).
The numbers of both ministers and PPSs have grown massively over the past century: in 1900, there were 60 ministers and nine PPSs; in 1950, 81 ministers and 27 PPSs. By 2000, numbers had risen to 106 ministers and 47 PPSs. But in recent times, neither main party has been able to rely on its frontbenches. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, experienced a mass resignation of more than 50 frontbenchers immediately after the EU referendum, and the Government has been hit by a series of resignations.
Brexit has created serious friction between the Conservatives and the DUP. Following the announcement of a deal with the EU in November, the DUP abstained on a series of votes on the Finance Bill. Its spokesman said: “Since the government has not honoured its side of the bargain [agreeing Northern Ireland would not be treated differently to the rest of the UK] we tonight tried to spell out some of the consequences of that.”
Brexit has also led to divisions within the Conservative and Labour parties themselves. On the Conservative side, members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group went so far as to submit letters of no confidence in Theresa May’s leadership, resulting in a vote (which the Prime Minister won); on all sides, there are divisions between those favouring the Prime Minister’s proposed deal with the EU, those favouring amending it, and those favouring other positions such as leaving without a deal or not leaving without a further referendum.
The rate of ministerial resignations is unprecedented
Since the 2017 general election, outside of reshuffles, 21 ministers had resigned from government as of 1 January 2019, six of them from the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). Eight of the 21 were Cabinet ministers.
From 1979 to 2017, there had been only one occasion on which two Cabinet ministers resigned within 24 hours of one another – Lord Carrington and Humphrey Atkins over the Falklands invasion in 1982. This happened twice in 2018:
David Davis (DExEU) and Boris Johnson (Foreign Office) on 8–9 July, over the Chequers proposal for leaving the EU
Dominic Raab (DExEU) and Esther McVey (Department for Work and Pensions/DWP) on 15 November, over the Prime Minister’s deal with the EU.
The resignations of Carrington/Atkins and Davis/Johnson were followed in each case by that of a junior minister (Richard Luce and Steve Baker, respectively). Two junior ministers went on the same day as Raab and McVey (Shailesh Vara from the Northern Ireland Office and Suella Braverman from DExEU), a post-1979 record for the most ministerial resignations on a single day.
It is not only the number of resignations that is unprecedented, but the reasons for them. Of the 21 resignations since the election, 14 have been over policy:
- Davis, Johnson, Raab, McVey, Baker, Vara, Braverman, Lord Bridges (DExEU), Phillip Lee (Ministry of Justice/MoJ), Guto Bebb (Ministry of Defence/MoD), Jo Johnson (Department for Transport/DfT) and Sam Gyimah (a joint minister between the Department for Education/DfE and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy/BEIS) over Europe
- Greg Hands (Department for International Trade/DIT) over Heathrow expansion
- Tracey Crouch (Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport/DCMS) over delays to fixed-odds betting terminal changes.
The total number of resignations connected with a specific issue during the past year is greater than the number that took place during two other notable clusters. In 2003, Robin Cook, Clare Short, Lord (Philip) Hunt and John Denham resigned over Iraq. In 2009, James Purnell, Caroline Flint and Jane Kennedy resigned over Gordon Brown’s leadership.
Reshuffles, as well as resignations, have disrupted government business
Voluntary reshuffles after the 2017 general election and in January 2018 have also contributed to turnover in ministers.
All changes of minister can be hugely disruptive to government departments; as the former chancellor Ken Clarke told the Institute for Government: “You could have an astonishing change of policy when the new minister turned up, let alone style.” It takes both the department and the minister time to adjust.
At Cabinet level:
eight ministers out of 29 are in the same post as July 2016, when Theresa May became Prime Minister
six out of the 29 came into their current posts in the June 2017 reshuffle or in late 2017
15 out of the 29 members of the Cabinet (52%) were new to their posts in 2018.
Since 2010, a number of departments have seen a particularly high degree of turnover in their leadership. In July, Jeremy Wright became the seventh Secretary of State at DCMS, at a time when the department is expanding its remit (for example, into the charities sector and the digital economy). In January 2018, David Gauke became the sixth Justice Secretary at a time when the prison system is under great strain; although prison officer numbers are now rising again, there has not yet been a notable decrease in violence.
In November 2018, Amber Rudd became the fifth Work and Pensions Secretary since Iain Duncan Smith left the post in March 2016, inheriting longstanding controversies over Universal Credit. David Lidington is the fourth Minister for the Cabinet Office since Francis Maude’s departure in May 2015.
Although the department has existed only since July 2016, DExEU is on its third Secretary of State. As the office-holder has changed – from David Davis to Dominic Raab, and from Raab to Stephen Barclay – so too has the role, with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office taking over some of the secretary of state’s (and the department’s) responsibilities.
Junior ministers can often be overlooked in the headlines about Cabinet departures, but play a vital role in driving policies through, and in representing their department in Parliament. Turnover among junior ministers has been significant: 67 out of all 132 posts across government – just over half – are filled by ministers new to their roles in 2018, rising to 103 (78%) since the 2017 general election.
All ministers in the MoJ and the Cabinet Office – the key co-ordinating department of government – are new to their roles in 2018. Other departments in which more than half of ministers are new include DCMS, DExEU and the Northern Ireland Office. Two thirds of ministers at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) are new since the start of 2018, which must have been disruptive to the department’s focus on housing, a government priority. Kit Malthouse is the eighth Housing Minister since 2010.
Turnover has also been high in the House of Commons whips’ office – mainly due to whips moving between roles within the office. This is likely to have further complicated the management of government business.
The Prime Minister’s use of Cabinet committees has evolved
Cabinet committees are “groups of ministers that can take collective decisions that are binding across government”, and where a lot of government business gets done. Some have sub-committees. Additionally, there are ‘taskforces’ designed “to monitor and drive delivery of the Government’s most important cross-cutting priorities”, such as digital, housing and industrial strategy. Despite personnel changes prompted by resignations and reshuffles, David Lidington remains the most influential figure on these committees and the Prime Minister’s de facto deputy, sitting on all but three, chairing nine and being deputy chair to the Prime Minister on three.
Lidington’s role continues that of his predecessor, Damian Green, who sat on more Cabinet committees than any other minister on his appointment as First Secretary of State following the 2017 general election. The roles of Lidington and Green marked a noticeable shift from command to compromise by the Prime Minister; she chaired most committees before the general election but, following the loss of her parliamentary majority, allowed her deputy to take the leading role. Following changes in January 2019, however, May once again chairs the greatest number of committees – ten, including the new sub-committee on EU Exit (Preparedness), to Lidington’s nine. There have been some other suggestions that her compromise approach has now given way to a third phase: a ‘bunker mentality’ and the sidelining of previously influential committees, particularly the Strategy and Negotiations Cabinet sub- committee (often referred to as the Brexit ‘war Cabinet’).
Cabinet committees are not the only influential groups of ministers. There are also inter-ministerial groups (IMGs) – more informal meetings, attended by ministers, that do not have the power to take decisions binding on Cabinet. Until this year, all we knew was that IMGs existed but not how many, on what subjects or with what membership. Now, following an Institute for Government Freedom of Information request, we know that the subjects they cover range from organised crime to mental health to race disparity. MHCLG, the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the Treasury and BEIS are the departments most often represented on IMGs, underlining their roles in delivering government priorities.
Given preparations for Brexit, perhaps the most important was the EU Exit group, which consisted of representatives from only three departments – the Treasury, Cabinet Office and DExEU – and acted as a ‘Dragons’ Den’, grilling other departments on their contingency plans if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
However, this IMG and the group on borders were folded into a new Cabinet sub- committee in January 2019, which also replaced the existing EU Exit and Trade (Domestic Preparedness, Legislation and Devolution) sub-committee. The membership of the new Cabinet sub-committee was published relatively quickly, but this is often not the case following changes to the structure of the Cabinet committee system or following changes of membership after reshuffles or ministerial resignations. Details of the existence and membership of IMGs are not published at all. There is no good reason why the membership and existence of IMGs should not be made public and updated regularly, or why information about Cabinet committees should not be kept up to date; this data helps us understand what the Government’s priorities are and who has a say.
Cabinet gender balance has improved since the 2010–15 Coalition
Cabinet diversity matters: having a range of people from different backgrounds and with different experiences should lead to better decision-making, as well as ensuring everyone can progress to the very top. The Prime Minister has launched important diversity initiatives, notably the Race Disparity Audit and a drive to end the gender pay gap, but what about her own Cabinet?
For a brief period after the January 2018 reshuffle, 34.5% of all Cabinet attendees were women. This was a higher percentage than at any other point in British political history, apart from a period of just over eight months under Gordon Brown. The changes to the Cabinet since January have brought the figure down slightly – to 31% – but that is still higher than the percentage of Conservative MPs who are women (21%).
However, four of the nine current female Cabinet attendees are merely ‘attending’ Cabinet – Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom, Caroline Nokes and Claire Perry – rather than full members. Those ‘attending’ Cabinet are usually in roles that are paid less and do not give them the responsibility of running a department as secretary of state. The June 2017 reshuffle involved apparent demotions for both Truss and Leadsom, from heading departments to attending as Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons respectively. This repeats a pattern among recent prime ministers: under Gordon Brown, for example, four female ministers attended only when their responsibilities were on the agenda between October 2008 and June 2009 and three between June 2009 and March 2010, leading to suggestions that ‘attending’ status can be used to imply that gender balance is better than it really is.
The next generation of ministers is coming through
Reshuffles and resignations mean that newer parliamentary intakes are starting to accede to ministerial office.
In November 2017, Victoria Atkins (Home Office) became the first member of the 2015 intake to join the Government; she was followed by Lucy Frazer (MoJ), Rishi Sunak (MHCLG), Oliver Dowden (Cabinet Office) and Kit Malthouse (DWP) in the January reshuffle. Since then, five have made it into the whips’ office, and Edward Argar (MoJ), Nusrat Ghani (DfT), Mims Davies (DCMS) and Kelly Tolhurst (BEIS) have joined departments. The Prime Minister has also used vice-chair positions in the Conservative Party to bring through a new generation.
None of the 2015 intake has yet made it into the Cabinet – and the appointments in November 2018 promoted more experienced MPs. But a new generation of politicians are moving up through the ranks as rumours of leadership bids continue to swirl and the governing party renews itself for a post-Brexit future.