Three factors invariably prevail at these times. These are ministerial performance – famously demonstrated by Clement Attlee’s ‘you’re not up to it’ remark when asked by an outgoing minister for a reason for dismissal; the balance of party factions but now temporally subordinated to views on Brexit; and, finally, ‘demographics’ where the contemporary issue is gender. A catch-all phrase to include these drivers normally contains words such as ‘refresh’ or ‘renew’.
Most Prime Ministers conduct reshuffles, but some do it more than others. Harold Wilson (1964-70 and 1974-76) conducted reshuffles seemingly every equinox. At the time, some political scientists were comparing the longevity of ministers across governments in the west, and found the UK to have one of the highest turnovers of ministers. More recently, David Cameron (2010-2016), although more like Wilson in several ways, preferred to keep ministers in place, demonstrated through his successor as Prime Minister notching up the record of being the longest serving Home Secretary since the office was created in 1782.
Ministerial performance is central to the success of a government but the criteria for judging this often changes. James Callaghan’s final year as Prime Minister was not helped by such ministers as David Ennals, Secretary of State for Social Services (including Health), who obviously struggled with decision making during the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978-79). Today, the problem seems to be connected to an ivory tower mentality often reinforced by insufficient delegation to junior ministers. More consistently over time has been the value of strong ministers being able to dominate their department, for example Denis Healey as Secretary of State for Defence; Roy Jenkins, Kenneth Clarke and George Osborne all as Chancellors of the Exchequer; and Douglas Hurd and William Hague as Foreign Secretaries.
These considerations might result in the Prime Minister seeking to create circumstances where ministers can be more visionary and creative. This takes us to the second factor in reshuffling – maintaining a political balance. Brexit is the omnipresent issue but, as the so-called phase two of the negotiations get underway, the emphasis will be on trade and economic productivity, investment in infrastructure and international relationships. This will require plenty of cooperation between ministers and, perhaps most important, a strong cabinet position on the preferred overall outcome. This should be a time for a renaissance of cabinet government, but the placing of personalities will determine whether this will happen.
Gender balance is now a political issue. Gone are the days when Prime Ministers could form a cabinet with just one or two female members, or none in the case of John Major’s first cabinet. So, as business and professions seek to promote female talent, leadership from 10 Downing Street should further boost this process. We can expect the appointment of more female Secretaries of State.
Two other observations. Firstly, the Prime Minister has demonstrated a willingness to reconstruct Whitehall machinery as needs arise. This reflects the 1970s when Edward Heath (1970-74) opted for ‘super-departments’ and a strong policy-making capacity in 10 Downing Street. The relevant 1970 White Paper reads well even today. For the foreseeable future, Brexit will require increased government intervention, so there should be some thinking about how Whitehall evolves to deliver a successful Brexit.
Second, the office of First Secretary of State – the immediate cause of the forthcoming reshuffle – has an interesting history. Created by Harold Macmillan (Prime Minister 1957-63) in 1962 to find a suitable perch for Rab Butler, it’s been used by Prime Ministers to manage rivals, promote friends or overcome tricky political problems. As in the case of its most recent incarnation, its deployment or otherwise might signal the Prime Minister’s level of self-confidence.
This reshuffle will be a turning point. The question is – in which direction will the new cabinet turn?