So who's up, who's down, who's in, who's out. Who cares?

The annual ritual of the cabinet reshuffle is destabilising, unnecessary and should be scrapped
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WHAT A merry-go-round ministerial appointments have become during the first two whirlwind years of this Government - with another round to come in next week's reshuffle. While policy-making proceeds at a cautious snail's pace, ministers come and go with a reckless abandon. No wonder they look exhausted.

Since the election there have been no less than three Trade and Industry Secretaries, a trio of Transport Secretaries and three Chief Secretaries to the Treasury. Stand by next week for Welsh Secretary Number Three and the third Secretary of State for the Today programme (and Carrier Out of Prime Ministerial Wishes). And Tony Blair's appetite for reshuffles has not been remotely sated.

Ahead of the latest reshuffle, speculation has been more feverish than ever, originated by nervy or manoeuvring ministers rather than journalists. One Blairite cabinet minister told me that Alan Milburn would be made Health Secretary (in which case there goes another Treasury Chief Secretary, a job Milburn has held since December, about as long as his predecessor stayed in the post).

Newspapers have stopped speculating about Peter Mandelson moving to Northern Ireland. Instead, they are reporting reaction to it as if the appointment had already been made. It is partly the prospect of a Mandelson succession that has prompted the extraordinary bid by Mo Mowlam to keep her job for a little longer. There is no love lost between the two.

At first, "friends" of Mowlam were informing newspapers of her alarm at the prospect of Mandelson taking over. This week she went public, making it clear she wanted to stay on in Belfast. She has not been the only one to exhibit ministerial assertiveness - not a characteristic normally associated with this Government. Two weeks ago, Frank Dobson told the Today programme that he wanted to remain Health Secretary. Let us note in passing that in this administration, ministers do not flex their muscles about mere policy decisions. They do so to protect their own jobs.

Thatcher had problems managing the Wets and the Dries, Wilson faced the scheming coded attacks of Pro-Marketeers and the Anti-Marketeers (to name but one ideological divide in his final cabinet). Blair has one or two ministers hinting, "Move me and there might be trouble." I doubt if he will take much notice.

Let us note, also, that for a Government with a such a massive majority, and record levels of popularity, there has been much nervy changing of personnel. It reveals a wariness and insecurity in Downing Street not only about the calibre of ministers, but the overall direction of policy.

But the wider question is the more pressing: are the constant changes, and speculation about further changes, any way to run a modernising Government? Business leaders - a group of whom Downing Street usually takes notice - are not impressed. Tim Melville Ross, from the Institute of Directors, told GMTV's The Sunday Programme this weekend that he would have only one major reshuffle during the life of a parliament, a four-or five-year period. He ignores, naturally for a businessman, the complex political challenge of feeding the ambitions of a huge parliamentary party. But his broader point is surely correct.

The annual ritual of the cabinet reshuffle is destabilising and unnecessary. It should be scrapped. The short-term paralysis that afflicts several Whitehall departments each summer is one damaging consequence. I doubt if Frank Dobson has given much thought to health policy in recent weeks. The Unionists have treated Mowlam with greater disdain in the confident knowledge that she will be out of their way shortly. And how can the great Cabinet Enforcer, Jack Cunningham, do any enforcing of other ministers when they read in the newspapers every day that he is about to spend more time with his fishing rods? In politics, high drama and longer-term significance are rarely connected. Reshuffles are the source of instability in advance and little practical change afterwards.

During one of John Major's many reshuffles, I recall an editor hiring a megaphone in order to inform the newsroom of the latest developments. "Jeremy Hanley is walking up Downing Street now!" she would declaim, as if World War Three was about to break out. I wished I had dared to hire my own megaphone and shout back "So bloody what?" Major's reshuffles made no difference to the unpopularity of the Government (their principle objective), or to the direction of policy. Yet each July he could not resist another throw of the reshuffle dice. Even sacking his old friend Norman Lamont, and replacing him with Ken Clarke, made no difference.

Blair does not have to reshuffle to acquire popularity, but evidently feels the urge to throw the dice too. Even so, we did not notice quantum improvements in the quality of transport when Gavin Strang was booted out and John Reid moved in to succeed him (before moving on to his third job a few months later). Nor are the trains running on time now that Helen Liddell is in charge. Did the approach to public spending change when Alastair Darling moved out of the Treasury to be replaced by Stephen Byers? Has Alan Milburn, Byers' successor as Chief Secretary, gone about matters differently? I doubt it.

Cabinet reshuffles are much less important than the policies being initiated and the manner in which they are implemented. Blair's efforts to achieve "joined-up government" are less compelling to the media, but much more significant than who is up and who is down in the reshuffle. His Social Exclusion Unit is one success in this area, forcing ministers from separate departments to deliver co-ordinated polices.

But the Unit is Tony Blair's own creation. Of course ministers want to deliver (after all, there is always a reshuffle around the corner if they don't). This makes it an exception to the general rule of departmental turf fights - but the Prime Minister cannot attach his own authority to every initiative of this kind.

The Foreign Office is wary of Clare Short's Department of International Development, the DTI and Department of Education and Employment feel threatened by the regional expansion being proposed by John Prescott's mighty department. These are institutions used to fighting their own corner, which judge ministers by their success or otherwise in looking after their interests.

For Blair a draining few days beckon. He will have to sack old friends, an act which all Prime Ministers dread. And then what? With the possible exception of Northern Ireland, the changes will not greatly affect voters' lives. They will, though, provide some high-class entertainment as ambitions are needlessly fuelled or destroyed for another year.

Steve Richards is political editor of the `New Statesman'