Andreas Whittam Smith: Cabinet reshuffles are no help to good government

If Marks & Spencer changed half its board every year we'd be incredulous
Click to follow

The constant reshuffling of ministers is one reason why the Government is ineffective and prone to error. Political insiders view this process as just normal politics. John Major, for instance, carried out five reshuffles during his seven years as prime minister. Tony Blair went even faster than this. Gordon Brown is preparing his second in the two years.

But the rest of us shouldn't accept that this is the way the business of government must be conducted. If, say, Marks & Spencer, or the Post Office, or the charity Save the Children were to change half their senior management teams every year, we would be incredulous and think they were destined for collapse – as is indeed the fate that seems to await New Labour.

Tony Blair carried out ten major reshuffles during his ten years in office. The first one came 14 months after forming his first Cabinet. The recently published diaries of Chris Mullin, the Labour MP for Sunderland South, provide snapshots of the process.

Mr Mullin records a fellow MP telling him in July 1999, by which time Mr Blair had moved some 22 ministers either up, sideways or out, that the 'present system of annual reshuffles is crazy. There is a massive inbuilt insecurity. Ministers who may not be there in a year are on top of a civil service which is permanent.' We can safely conclude that reshuffles have nothing at all to do with improving the performance of government.

Turn again to Mr Mullin, writing on junior ministerial appointments in January 2000. "In opposition (Joyce Quin) was our Europe spokesman, a job for which she was eminently qualified, whereupon as soon as we were elected she was made Minister of Prisons and the Europe job was given to Doug Henderson who was equally unqualified.

"After a year it became clear that this wasn't working so Joyce was moved to the Foreign Office to do the job for which she was the obvious candidate all along. A year later she was brushed aside to make room for Geoff Hoon. He stayed only three months to be replaced by Keith Vaz, who has no obvious qualifications. Now Joyce is at agriculture about which she knows nothing."

The purpose of ministerial reshuffles is mainly to impress the electorate with a feeling of freshness, of re-starting and of bringing on new ideas. For all I know, the timetable for reshuffles originates in New Labour's marketing department. But back in the real world, we hardly notice.

A second factor is the need to achieve a balance between various factions. What is so deplorable about government during the past 20 years, however, is that prime ministers feel the obliged to carry out this process with a reckless frequency regardless of the disruption to effective policy making and delivery that is the result. Alistair Darling's allies make a strong point in arguing that he has built a vast knowledge base over the past two years that would be thrown away if he is jettisoned.

This analysis is made all the stronger by the fact that Mr Brown's new team can only serve at best for the twelve months that remain before a General Election must be held. This is the crowning absurdity of the system of shuffle, reshuffle and reshuffle again.

Imagine you have just been appointed, say, the new Secretary of State for Education this very June 2009. You have no more than 12 months to serve. Most probably you won't have any existing experience of your department's business.

You try to learn as quickly as you can. How long does this take – three months? Six months? At last you understand – but now there is insufficient time to put your new learning to any good purpose. Perhaps you can write a few sentences for the party manifesto for the coming election.

Of course Mr Brown cannot avoid carrying out a reshuffle even if, improbably, he had wished to do so. Resignations mean that there are gaps to be filled. But what an utterly pointless, futile exercise it is. I sign off with a final quotation from Mr Mullin, taken from the time when he was a junior minister:

"Today I have addressed a conference of industrial water users in the City, spent and hour and a half in committee debating an Order on aircraft training regulations, addressed an all-party animal welfare group on the regulation of zoos and circuses and held a half-hour telephone discussion with EU Commissioner Neil Kinnock about how the defuse a row between Britain and US. None of these are subjects I know anything about."