Reshuffle blues

It was widely reported that DC was planning a cabinet reshuffle this week and that he hated the thought of it. I have been there and I know how he feels.  The media love it. There is endless speculation about who is in and who is out; who is up and who is down.  It all fills news slots, gives political punters employment and sells newspapers but what does it do for good government?

The Prime Minister

When I led Oxfordshire County Council, I had an easier job than DC – but not a lot.  I had 51 members of my Group many of whom thought they would be a better leader than me and almost all of whom thought they had the necessary skills to be in the County Council Cabinet! Poor old DC has  305 fellow Conservative MPs, not to mention being in coalition with the Liberals.  

I carried out a re-shuffle in many of my ten years as Leader. They are never easy. People take a move – whether up, sideways or out – personally. There is pride, maintaining face with colleagues, constituents and family. There is also money. It ought not to matter but it does, whether in local government or in Westminster. In the latter the stakes are higher, with perks like a private office and a ministerial car as well as a sizeable salary but I know of local councillors for whom the few thousand pounds they were paid as a cabinet member or a committee chairman came to be very important.

Planning a re-shuffle is a complete nightmare. There are schedules showing slots, incumbents, potential candidates and a whole lot of important bits of information. Whips will proffer advice so will cabinet and other senior colleagues.  Managerial and communication skills are clearly very important but so is geography and gender and political balance within a party.  A politician may have a vigorous and well-tuned brain supported by a mega-intellect but, if he cannot see the political man-trap lying in front of him, he will be of limited use.

I gather DC did the sackings in tbe privacy of his Commons office to save departing ministers that long walk past the waiting reporters in Downing Street. However, he then returned to No 10 to meet with the successful  contenders for promotion.    One thing can be certain he will have more political enemies tonight and fewer political friends. As someone famous once said of the Commons “the Opposition is in front of you but your enemies are behind!”

This may not be a popular sentiment in Conservative ranks but I have some sympathy with senior civil servants. I would be surprised if there were not civil servants today who were hanging out the bunting to celebrate the departure of their political bosses but I would also be surprised if there were not many more who were sorry to lose a political boss they have come to respect and even trust.  There is a balance between developing a team spirit for politicians and officials on the one hand and developing a too cosy relationship on the other.  I hope I succeeded in my time as a council leader and I am sure it has happened  in Whitehall without damaging the public interest.

I think DC was right to wait before moving people. It takes time to master a brief and it takes time for a ministerial team to bond. Whether the changes he has made will make any difference in policy terms, only time will tell.  As Macmillan observed, in politics so often it is “events” that make or break ministerial careers, reputations and, occasionally, hearts!

About Keith R Mitchell CBE

Qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1967. Pursued a successful career in financial training and publishing until selling his interests in 1990. Elected a County Councillor for the Bloxham Division in 1989. Leader of Oxfordshire County Council 5 November 2001 to 15 May 2012. Chairman of the South East England Regional Planning Committee July 2002 to July 2005. Chairman of the South East England Regional Assembly July 2005 to July 2008. In HM the Queen’s 2007 Birthday Honours, appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in recognition of services to local government.
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