The impact and effectiveness of ministerial reshuffles - Political and Constitutional Reform Contents

1  Introduction

Background to the inquiry

1. Reshuffles are accepted as part of political life in the United Kingdom, but in other contexts, and particularly in the world of business, regularly moving groups of key people to new posts would be regarded as extraordinary. Steve Richards, chief political commentator at The Independent, stated: "I cannot think of any other area where you would have a Transport Secretary every six months. Virgin Trains does not get rid of its chief executive every six months, for instance."[1] There were six Secretaries of State for Transport between 2001 and 2010, and there have already been three Secretaries of State for Transport since the 2010 general election. Of the nine post-holders over the past 12 years, four were in post for less than a year. The Rt Hon Charles Clarke told us that when Tony Blair was Prime Minister he "reshuffled Transport almost incessantly".[2] By contrast, between 2001 and 2013, there have been only two chief executives of Virgin Trains.[3]

2. The Department for Transport has seen a particularly high number of ministerial moves, but other Departments have also been subject to frequent changes. In May 2011, the Institute for Government published a report that noted that, while some posts, such as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary, tended to be relatively stable, "during the 13 Labour years in office, there were six defence secretaries, eight trade and industry secretaries, eight business secretaries, and six home secretaries (including three in four years)."[4] A briefing paper by the think-tank Demos, published in June 2009, stated that since 2005 the average tenure for a Minister had been 1.3 years.[5]

3. Reshuffles are not uncommon in political life in other European and Commonwealth countries, but in some of these countries they take place significantly less frequently than in the UK. For example, Germany had only six mid-term reshuffles between 1949 and 2006.[6] The Rt Hon Peter Riddell, Director of the Institute for Government, told us that Germany had had 15 business Ministers since 1949, whereas the UK had had 35.[7] He stated that when the Institute for Government wanted to discuss reshuffles with a visiting delegation from Germany, they found it "very difficult to get the concept over to them" because the German delegation simply "did not understand what on earth we were talking about." [8]

4. Comparisons such as those outlined above encouraged us to explore why reshuffles are used in UK politics, their impact and whether there are any ways in which the reshuffle process could be improved. We launched our inquiry on 18 May 2012 with a call for written evidence. The inquiry's terms of reference can be found in Annex A. We held seven oral evidence sessions with witnesses including former Secretaries of State and former and current senior civil servants. We also received written evidence from a former Prime Minster: the Rt Hon Sir John Major. We are grateful to all who contributed to the inquiry.

Background on reshuffles

5. The power to appoint and dismiss Ministers, and to move existing Ministers to new posts, is a prerogative power exercised by the Prime Minister. We are exploring prerogative powers as part of our inquiry into the role and powers of the Prime Minister.

6. There are some legislative constraints on the appointment of Ministers. The maximum numbers of paid ministerial posts is laid down in schedule 1 of the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975 and is 109. In addition, section 2 of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 provides that not more than 95 holders of ministerial posts may sit and vote in the House of Commons at any one time. In this case, the limit applies regardless of whether the posts are paid. There is also a statutory definition, under section 8 of the Ministers of the Crown Act 1975, of what constitutes a Minister: "the holder of an office in Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, [including] the Treasury, the Board of Trade and the Defence Council."

7. There are no restrictions on how often ministerial reshuffles can take place. Nor is there established guidance on how and when they are best undertaken. The Cabinet Manual is largely silent on the subject of reshuffles, stating only:

    The Prime Minister has certain prerogatives, for example recommending the appointment of ministers and determining the membership of Cabinet and Cabinet committees. However, in some circumstances the Prime Minister may agree to consult others before exercising those prerogatives. The Ministerial Code states: 'the Prime Minister is responsible for the overall organisation of the Executive and the allocation of functions between Ministers in charge of departments.'[9]

8. Reshuffles under the Coalition Government are constrained by the terms of The Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform, published in May 2010. Under this arrangement, the Prime Minister agreed that a number of prerogative powers, including the appointment of Ministers, would be exercised only after consultation with the Deputy Prime Minister. The Institute for Government commented on the "new rules of the game" for coalition reshuffles, as set out in the Coalition Agreement, in its paper "Shuffling the pack":

    First, the balance of ministers between[the] two parties must remain 'approximately in proportion to the size of the two parliamentary parties.' Second, it [the Coalition Agreement] is explicit that it is the DPM who nominates Lib Dem ministers. Third, the DPM is entitled to 'full consultation' over any dismissals of Lib Dem ministers and any further appointments to cabinet. And fourth, any reallocation of portfolios between the two parties must be agreed between the two party leaders.[10]

9. Coalition government undoubtedly makes reshuffles more difficult, which is one reason why Germany has far fewer of them than the UK. Since the 2010 general election, there has been only one major reshuffle in the UK, which took place on 4 September 2012, approximately mid-way through the Parliament. Seven members of the Cabinet were moved to new Cabinet posts and there were five new appointments to the Cabinet. There were also a series of moves among non-Cabinet Ministers.

10. The fact that there has been only one major reshuffle since 2010 can be attributed not only to the constraints of coalition government, but to the Prime Minister's own determination to keep the number of reshuffles to a minimum. He has made his views on the subject clear. In an interview with The Sun, at the end of his first year as Prime Minister, David Cameron commented: "I'm not a great believer in endlessly moving people between different jobs…We had 12 energy ministers in nine years. And the tourism minister changed more often than people got off planes at Heathrow. It was hopeless. I think you've got to try to appoint good people and keep them".[11]

Reasons for reshuffles

11. Reshuffles take place for a variety of reasons, some of which are inescapable. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, commented: "some reshuffles are prompted by an accident or an emergency or a sudden resignation, so to some extent it is inevitable."[12] Reshuffles prompted by death, illness and resignations will always be part of political life.

12. It might be thought that one other major reason for reshuffles would be the desire to change Government policy, but our witnesses were unanimous in believing that reshuffles were rarely motivated by policy changes. Lord Turnbull, the former Cabinet Secretary, commented:

    In the last reshuffle, the Prime Minister, aided by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was trying to make a statement about green policy and renewables coming a bit lower down in the priority and more about the development of infrastructure and more about a more business-friendly energy policy. But in general I do not think policy is the main thing...[13]

Akash Paun, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government, commented: "the reshuffles that actually make a big difference to policy direction are very much the exception."[14]

13. Far more significant, in terms of the reasons for reshuffles, is what Peter Riddell broadly termed "party management".[15] The Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP commented:

    The main reason for reshuffles is to allow Prime Ministers to try to ensure they have the best possible team of ministers. Ideally, they should be about rewarding ability and performance. In reality other factors come into play such as the need to balance governments politically and give 'big beasts' jobs. Reshuffles allow Prime Ministers to: test and bring on young talent by giving them experience in different departments; resolve problems when ministers get into difficulty and are forced to resign or are sacked; refresh governments or departments that appear tired or underperforming; reward loyalty.[16]

He also noted that the reasons for reshuffles can differ according to the lifecycle of a Government, commenting that in the early years of a Government, reshuffles could take place because "people who perform well as shadow ministers in opposition may not necessarily do so in government so it may take several reshuffles once in government for a PM to have the most effective team and the team he or she really wants."[17]

14. The former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, told us:

    There were a number of objectives in any reshuffle. The first was to promote able Members to replace Ministers who were under performing. I was also keen to bring a regional and political balance to the Government, in order to fairly reflect opinion within Parliament. A third objective was to bring on young Members, and give them a breadth of experience, if I judged that they were likely to make it to the Cabinet.[18]

He added that, as he looked back, he realised "this may not always have been the right decision in the interests of good management of a portfolio and the best service by Ministers to the public." He commented: "Few Members reach Cabinet, and I should, perhaps, have given greater priority to matching abilities and portfolios."[19]

15. We were told that another significant reason why reshuffles take place is habit. Lord Turnbull, talking about the most recent reshuffle, told us:

    It is just assumed that after about two years there should be one. When President Obama appointed his team when he was first elected, he appointed Hilary Clinton as the Secretary of State. I do not think there was any assumption that Hilary Clinton would do anything other than serve the term, and Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary likewise, whereas here it is just assumed that governments need to be refreshed.[20]

16. As part of our inquiry, we explored the extent to which the media encourage the expectation that there will be regular reshuffles. Professor Keith Dowding, of the Australian National University, Canberra, commented: "It has been suggested that media speculation has caused the timing of if not a reshuffle itself. We might bemoan this aspect but there is no clear way of overcoming such pressures."[21] Peter Riddell told us the media were "part of it in the sense of being part of the gossip mechanism", but stated that he did not think that Prime Ministers were particularly influenced by media speculation.[22] Sir Bob Kerslake, the Head of the Civil Service, also stated that he did not think that reshuffles were driven by the media.[23] We received no evidence to suggest that media speculation about reshuffles had an impact on who was moved where. Media speculation clearly does play some part in creating an expectation that there will be a reshuffle, although this speculation is both a cause and a symptom of the wider acceptance that reshuffles are a regular part of political life in the UK. We consider the impact of media speculation about reshuffles on Ministers themselves in chapter 2.

17. Sir John Major told us: "Reshuffles should be driven by necessity, not by public or political pressure."[24] We agree. Some reshuffling of Ministers is inevitable: there will always be occasional resignations, illnesses and even deaths. However, there should always be a good reason for a reshuffle. No reshuffle should ever take place simply because it is assumed that there should be one. Reshuffles have become a habit in the UK and altering this will require a change of mindset.

18. We commend the Prime Minister for the restraint he has shown in reshuffling Ministers and urge his successors to follow his example in this regard.

1   Q 322 Back

2   Q 184 Back

3   Chris Green, 1999 to 2004, and Tony Collins, 2004 to present Back

4   Institute for Government, "The Challenge of Being a Minister", May 2011, p 20 Back

5   Demos ,"The 'culture of churn' for UK Ministers and the price we all pay", 12 June 2009 Back

6   "The Challenge of Being a Minister", p 42 Back

7   Q 8 Back

8   Q 7 Back

9   Cabinet Office, The Cabinet Manual, October 2011, paragraph 3.3 Back

10   Institute for Government, "Shuffling the pack: A brief guide to government reshuffles", September 2012, p 7 Back

11   "PM's 1yr vow: I'll get Britain back on track", The Sun, 10 May 2011 Back

12   Q 235 Back

13   Q 126 Back

14   Q 12 Back

15   Q 12 Back

16   Ev w4 Back

17   Ev w5 Back

18   Ev w12 Back

19   Ev w12 Back

20   Q 127 Back

21   Ev w7  Back

22   Q 34 Back

23   Q 92 Back

24   Ev w12 Back

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Prepared 14 June 2013