Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Shuffling the pack or how not to change your ministers

Ministerial reshuffles are always a mixed bag.  Sometimes it’s a case of rearranging the chairs on the Titanic while occasionally reshuffles represent the beginning of a new direction in policy.  Yesterday’s reshuffle was neither of these.  Although the government is, not surprisingly mid-term, languishing in the polls, it has yet the achieve the Titanic status of the last Labour government.  Despite the many comments that this was a re-launch of the government, it resembles the beginning of part 2 of a drama (or tragedy depending on your viewpoint).  Part 1 was reform, part 2 presentation and delivery so there remains a continuity of policy but no new direction (well in most areas).  The only problem with this approach is that if the policies are wrong, presenting them in a more dynamic way to the public makes little difference.

There are, however, several things that were significant about the changes in ministerial briefs.  First, they demonstrate a weakness at the heart of government.  The top posts have not changed at all: Osborne remains Chancellor, Hague at the Foreign Office and May at the Home Office and Duncan-Smith would not accept a move to the Ministry of Justice.  No ‘night of the long knives’ here.  Secondly, where there were changes at the higher level of government, the moves were concerned with moving the reform agenda on to its delivery stage.  With Hunt replacing Lansley at Health you have a presenter replacing a thinker even if his thoughts on health do not have significant support among professionals or public.  At Transport, it appears that Justine Greening has been moved for stating government policy on the third runway at Heathrow and replaced by  an established politician whose constituency will not be compromised if (or more likely when) the government alters its policy.  Finally, there has been promotion for some of the 2010 intake that represents a shift to an even more free-trade, market oriented, small state approach to policy.

The critical question is whether this really matters to people outside the Westminster bubble.  Most of those promoted, even to relatively senior positions, are largely unknown outside Parliament.  Will replacing Baroness Warsi with Grant Shapps or the lamentable decision to bring back David Lawes after his period in purdah actually make any difference to the general public?  Well, no.  It is clear that policies are not going to change and that the government intended to deliver (or not) them in the next thirty months.  At one level this is a commendable position to take, develop your policy and then implement it.  However, there is always a danger of not having (or at least not publicising) a Plan B since policies can be thrown off-course is things beyond government’s control.  There is always a joker in the pack!

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