Reshuffle at your peril, Prime Minister. That was the message last week from the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee, which issued its report on ‘The Impact and Effectiveness of Ministerial Reshuffles’ on 14 June.
The report was critical of the modern political proclivity for frequent and wide-reaching ministerial reshuffles, advocating instead that, barring resignations, Cabinet ministers should be hold the same government post for the full five-year lifetime of a Parliament. Whilst the report praised the Prime Minister for his ‘restraint’ compared to that of the last Government, it nonetheless criticised the recent ‘high turnover’ of senior Civil Servants within departments. The report also recommended that outgoing ministers should conduct a formal handover to their successor, all new ministers should undergo a programme of compulsory training and all serving ministers should undergo continuous professional development whilst in office and go through an annual appraisal process. All of which would be the responsibility of a dedicated senior minister at the Cabinet Office who would be in charge of ‘ministerial development’.
The Committee’s timing could not have been better, with newspapers gleefully speculating about who would and would not make the cut in the anticipated two anticipated reshuffles that are expected before the end of the year. Rumour has it that the junior ranks will be revitalised and refreshed in July ahead of the summer recess whilst the senior ranks (including the Cabinet) will be reshuffled in the autumn. The intention is that this will be the last planned reshuffle (no PM’s plans ever account for unexpected resignations) of the Parliament, with the PM hoping to have in place the team that will steer the Coalition into the 2015 General Election.
Ministerial continuity was very much the word of the week in Westminster when, in a rare example of (unintentionally) joined-up Government, the publication of the Committee Report coincided with the release of a the Commons Library research paper naming the 20th and 21st Century Parliamentarians to have held ministerial office for 20 years or more. Winston Churchill topped the list with an accumulated 29 years as a Minister, including a period greedily serving as Prime Minister and Defence Minister simultaneously! The Marquis of Salisbury also deserves a special mention as 21 years of ministerial service included no fewer than 17 years as Prime Minister – all served from the comparative comfort of the House of Lords.
Prime Ministers were curiously few in numbers on list – with just 3 of the 14 names having held the top job in UK politics. Margaret Thatcher did not accumulate enough years in the junior ranks to make the list, despite serving no fewer than 11 years at Downing Street. The list also included three distinguished Conservative statesmen of the post-war period – RA ‘Rab’ Butler, Viscount Hailsham and Ken Clarke – who collectively amassed not only 68 years of ministerial service but also an equally impressive 6 failed attempts at the leadership of their party.
Clearly one lesson from history seems to be that momentum is more important than experience for an ambitious minister seeking to climb what Disraeli famous called the ‘greasy pole’ of British politics. However, another lesson from history would be that Disraeli and his rival Gladstone managed to serve as Prime Minister no fewer than six times between them in the period from 1868 to 1894 – and neither was ever asked to complete a BTEC in being a Minister or attend a job appraisal with the Minister for Human Resources.