There has been much discussion recently over whether or not – and if so how – David Cameron will stage a reshuffle after the council elections and referendum. Much of the comment has been to the tune that reshuffling is a bad idea (as Paul Goodman has suggested). And I have to agree.
Reshuffles are, in many cases (and especially so just one year into a parliament) unnecessary, disruptive and expensive. This is for two key reasons.
Firstly, reshuffles create an image, to the public, of a government that is confused, falling apart and unable to function in its current form. (And surely this is even more dangerous in the case of a Coalition government).
Let us take two examples. Firstly Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives, when seven cabinet ministers – including Selwyn Lloyd, then Chancellor of the Exchequer – were summoned to Downing Street and asked to relinquish their portfolios. Jeremy Thorpe, then a 30 year old MP for North Devon was quoted as adapting John 15:13 to aptly sum-up Macmillan’s purge of once loyal colleagues:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his friends for life”.
The second situation that comes to my mind is that of Gordon Brown’s mass reshuffle in June of 2009.
Just weeks after the expenses scandal (and that wonderful, nation leading, YouTube performance) Caroline Flint, Hazel Blears, James Purnell, Jacqui Smith and John Hutton left the cabinet. Brown survived yet another coup, with Lord Mandelson (who subsequently became a de facto unelected Deputy Prime Minister) gracefully saving the day. This smacked of despair. The rats were leaving the sinking ship and Gordon Brown had come to be seen as weak and dithering.
Surely, to change positions in a Coalition government would be even more dangerous. With caps on Lib Dem membership of the cabinet, somebody is always going to have to be disappointed. We all know the dangers of demoting people in a reshuffle (Geoffrey Howe is the perfect example) – let alone in a Coalition government, where one person’s unhappy departure could bring everything crashing down.
But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, keeping continuity in cabinet posts keeps consistency and stability in government policy and allows the post-holder to deepen their understanding of the policy area. Thereby, in many respects, they become more of an authority on what they are talking about. We want a Secretary of State for Health who knows what they are talking about (not somebody who is merely a mouthpiece), we want a Secretary of State for Defence who has had to make tough decisions and respond quickly to urgent situations. This should apply to all cabinet posts. What is more, when a minister can talk with confidence on his area – surely the public will have more confidence in him, and more time for him? They won’t see him as being ‘one of those politicians’.
Under New Labour, ministerial promotions were handed out like sweets. What department a minister actually managed became irrelevant with promotions simply being seen as signs of loyalty – gifts courtesy of Prime Minister Blair. So please, Mr Cameron, let’s avoid that situation, save the money on changing the name on the stationery and, in doing so, get near to regaining the public’s trust in politics and politicians.