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


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.

React Now

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

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A member of the 'Taiji Dolphin Action Group' curls up on a sheet depicting the Japanese flag, during a protest against the killing of dolphins  

Japan must put an end to the brutal slaughter and torture of its dolphins

Mimi Bekhechi

iOS 8 is full of shiny new features - but it's terrible news for app developers

Ed Rex
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week