Steve Richards: Government works better if ministers aren't being sacked all the time. So give credit to the Coalition

It is one of Cameron's qualities as a leader that he tends to stand by his appointees

Share

In a government famous for policy U-turns, it is highly unusual for a minister to be sacked or moved. Policies change, but ministers tend to stay put. The pattern will not save Liam Fox, the current subject of seething speculation, and nor should it. But the stability in relation to ministerial personnel means he has more of a chance to put his case, however unconvincing, than if he had been clinging on as a member of the previous government.

There has been no reshuffle of any significance since the election 17 months ago. The departure of David Laws soon after the Coalition was formed has turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. Vince Cable survived the disgraceful set-up by a couple of journalists in his constituency office, when he was recorded attacking Rupert Murdoch. Chris Huhne is still in place, the relationship between him and his driving licence (not to mention his tweeting) not yet barring him from office.

Ken Clarke left the Conservative conference to stride exuberantly back to his departmental office in spite of engaging in a dispute about a cat with Ms May, as well as having survived an earlier frenzy about the implications of his sentencing reforms in relation to rape. Andrew Lansley is still in place even though he has suffered the ultimate humiliation of unveiling a revolution for the NHS, only to be told to unveil it all over again.

Even now, the more forensic peers in the Lords recognise that at least one more unveiling is required to save the NHS from chaos. Lansley takes it more or less in his stride.

In the anti-politics age, the orthodox reaction is to dismiss such resolution as pure self-interest. The opposite is closer to the truth. David Cameron models too much of his leadership style on Tony Blair, but he has learnt from one of Blair's errors. Under New Labour's rule, planned reshuffles happened far too often, unplanned changes even more so. The constant switching of ministers was a significant factor in the failure of many to make their mark on departments, or more generally on the Cabinet when it had wider discussions, such as over the build-up to war in Iraq.

Blair also conceded far too easily when frenzies erupted in the media. Peter Mandelson should not have been sacked the second time. Geoffrey Robinson should not have been ejected the first time that Mandelson was sacked. Charles Clarke should have been kept at the Home Office.

On one of the days when Ken Clarke was the victim of such hysteria, a former adviser to Blair, John McTernan, said approvingly that Blair would have sacked the Justice Secretary. I suspect Blair would have carried out one major reshuffle by now. His first was in the summer of 1998, a year after the election.

Cameron faces different constraints. A coalition makes ministerial change far less attractive and on the whole he has most of the media on board without having to work quite so hard at pleasing them. Nonetheless it is a quality of his leadership that he tends to stand by ministers until the evidence is overwhelming.



The advantages of ministerial continuity are immense. Above all, ministers need time to acquire an authority within their department. Senior civil servants tend to regard their departments as personal fiefdoms visited fleetingly by precarious cabinet ministers. The officials are there for much longer, and security of tenure gives them a power that mere elected ministers can only dream of.

In the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude is the latest minister attempting to reform the civil service. Let us hope he succeeds because this is an institution in need of sweeping change. Many of his predecessors, however, have tried before without success. One change within the power of elected leaders is to keep a minister in place for long enough to get a grip.

The development of policy is also helped enormously if a single minister remains for more than a few months. On average, Labour had a new Transport Secretary every 12 months. The arrival of another one was more dependable than the trains for which they were theoretically responsible. To some extent, Blair's public-service reforms were also undermined by constant ministerial changes. In contrast, some of the ministers in the Coalition are starting to display a degree of confidence and authority – at least within their departments and sometimes at Cabinet meetings.

The case of Fox is different from some of those colleagues who were fleetingly vulnerable. Mostly the others were one-day wonders. This is a saga without immediate resolution, with the interim report on his conduct being no more than a holding operation. In the meantime, speculation will intensify, a destabilising activity that feeds on itself. In the end, Cameron's judgement must rely on the facts when they are established and I sense that is what will happen. The facts will either finish Fox or save him, a novelty in these situations when reason tends to play little part.

There are justified and urgent questions being asked of the Coalition's policies, and more specifically in relation to Fox's bizarre conduct, but an inherently unstable political context highlights the needs for more stable government. Whatever happens to Fox, Cameron has set an example for ministerial continuity and his successors should follow it whether they lead a coalition or not.



s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Deputy Editor: i’s Review of the Year

Andrew Webster
RIP Voicemail?  

Voicemail has got me out of some tight corners, so let's not abandon it

Simon Kelner
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all