Such was the scale of the reshuffle among the ranks of junior ministers that it is still being absorbed. Beyond the changes already noted at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Bob Neill has returned to the back benches to be replaced by Brandon Lewis.
Mr Lewis is the MP for Great Yarmouth, but he is also the former leader of Brentwood Borough Council. Under his leadership, the Conservative Group increased from eight to 20 in the 2006 local elections. The MP for Brentwood and Ongar is, of course, the Communities and Local Government Minister Eric Pickles. Of the many chums of Mr Pickles, Mr Lewis is a particularly good one. Only two weeks ago, Brentwood Council, now led by Cllr Louise McKinlay, was praised by the Taxpayers Alliance for dispensing with the post of chief executive.
So congratulations to Mr Lewis who will certainly make an effective contribution to the team.
However, it is also right to acknowledge the contribution that Mr Neill has made as a Minister. He was held in the highest regard at the Department, both by officials and his Ministerial colleagues.
As Fire Minister, Mr Neill helped avert an irresponsible strike two years ago, dealing in a calm but firm manner with the militant Fire Brigades Union and helping to ensure that contingencies were in place. He also brought in changes to service, allowing flexibility to reflect local needs – rather than a hugely expensive bureaucratic structure of regional government.
His style as a Minister was less combative than some of his colleagues. Christopher Hope writes in the Daily Telegraph:
Known fondly as “Little Bob” by aides and officials, he was loved by the civil service and local authorities alike – no easy combination.
Yet Neill’s easygoing charm masked a formidable legal brain (he is a criminal barrister), which was put to good use when his boss Eric Pickles was imposing the Coalition’s transparency and localism agenda on councils shortly after the Coalition came to power.
Neill was in charge of the fire service, the Thames Gateway, the Olympics local government and – to a degree – planning since May 2010. But he was also minister for pubs – a job he embraced “with relish”, according to insiders.
There is a feeling that – with the departure of the level-headed Clark – Neill's wise counsel might have been useful at the DCLG in the potentially difficult few months ahead.
There has been some rough justice in this reshuffle with some capable people losing their jobs simply to make way for others to be given a chance. Mr Neill seems to be taking it on the chin. He tells the Bromley News Shopper:
"It has been a great privilege to have served in the Government and I am very proud of what my Department has achieved over these past two years.
"I had a very positive and friendly conversation with the Prime Minister yesterday and I made it clear that he will have my full support as an active backbencher.
"There is critical work to do in rebuilding our economy and creating the homes and jobs our country needs.
"And above all, I shall be devoting all my energies to standing up for the interests of the people of Bromley and Chislehurst.”