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Reshuffles Without Tears

The Prime Minister’s reshuffle achieved her stated aims of changing the appearance of the Conservative party and bringing new talent into the lower levels of government. The array of new Vice Chairmen at Central Office look different, and  the Whips office has several new faces.

At Cabinet level three people left – Damian Green, Justine Greening and James Brokenshire. The three replacements were Esther McVey, Damian Hinds and Matthew Hancock. That left the Cabinet no more or less diverse than before. It does mean there is one more Leave voting member of the Cabinet, but still a strong Remain majority.  In that sense the Cabinet does not look like the country, but all of course must  now be committed collectively to the UK’s exit from the EU.

Reshuffles are difficult to do well. They draw attention to just how every nuance and move of office politics at the top levels of Whitehall is a matter for media and public interest. It makes private conversations and speculative discussion about future roles difficult to achieve.  There are too many briefers claiming inside knowledge putting out what turn out to be false stories.

Government should consider what is happening in well managed private sector companies. There succession planning, mentoring,  and the offer of training and support are an important part of senior personnel management. Each senior person is given a job description, aims and measurable objectives. Performance is then reviewed periodically, and the individual knows whether they are well thought of or not. Personnel policies begin with talent mapping, finding out what skills, enthusiasms and ambitions individual managers have. The aim is then to put each manager into a position where they use their skills and qualifications or are given the means to acquire the new ones they need, and into a position where they want to do the job and can see how it fits in with their interests and wishes for the future. Sometimes they may be asked to do something they do not want to do. If they are to do it well they need persuading that it is right for them as well as for the company.

If Ministers were given more guidance of what is expected of them and had the benefit of periodic reviews of how well they are doing, there would be fewer unpleasant surprises at reshuffle time. All recent governments, Labour, Coalition and Conservative, have seen the same situation at reshuffle. Ministers have to stay close to a phone not knowing in most cases whether  they will stay put, move sideways, be promoted or sacked. If there was more work between reorganisations expectations could be managed with fewer tears at reshuffle, and fewer difficult conversations with Ministers who object to what is planned for them.

The task is too large for the Prime Minister alone. She has to review and mentor the principal members of Cabinet. They in turn have to manage more junior members of the government. Each Secretary of State can be responsible for the junior Ministers in his or her department. The Chancellor of the Exchequer  could guide the Chief Secretary, the Foreign Secretary the Overseas Aid Secretary, the Senior Cabinet Office Minister could take on several of the more junior Cabinet posts, and the Lord Chancellor can deal with the Law Officers.


Sir John Redwood MP

Sir John Redwood has been Member of Parliament for Wokingham since 1987 and is a former Secretary of State for Wales, having held a variety of ministerial roles in the 1980s and 1990s. A former Head of Margaret Thatcher's Policy Unit, he is Chairman of the Conservative Parliamentary Economic Affairs Committee and wrote We Don’t Believe You: Why Populists and the Establishment See the World Differently (Bite-Sized Books, 2019). His Politeia publications include How to Take Back Control: Trading Globally Through the WTO (2018) and Trading Truths: The Treasury, Trade and the City (2016).

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