Mid-term Cabinet Reshuffles – Acceptable Cynicism?

07/10/2013

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This week appears to be the time for another mid-term Cabinet reshuffle, as the Government promotes and demotes, switches and, er, ditches, Ministers for a variety of reasons. But, as with many staples of the strange political system we have in Britain (the government getting to call the date of the election and half the weirdness that goes on in the Commons spring to mind), it seems to go on without any wider questioning.

There are, of course, many legitimate reasons to move or replace Cabinet Ministers. Chief among them are of course resignations or deaths of ministers, MPs losing elections, or even under-performing ministers. But the mid-term Cabinet reshuffle is almost expected (it hasn’t even been a year since the last one) – it’s like a football team being expected to be active at every transfer window. But unlike playing football, I’d like to think running the country is more complex and requires a greater skill-set.

In the last Labour Government, for example, John Reid had, in the space of 9 years, been Transport Secretary, Leader of the Commons, Secretary of State for Scotland, for Northern Ireland, Defence Secretary, Health Secretary and Home Secretary. There were six different Home Secretary’s during the 13 years of Labour. Moving ministers around to different portfolios seems to suggest one of two things – either ministers are supremely talented people, able to turn their hand at anything from healthcare to defence – or that they are supremely untalented people who can be shifted anywhere with no real consequence as its the civil servants, political advisers and so forth who do the real work.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, but what it really indicates is that mid-term Cabinet reshuffles are almost always superficial and cynical exercises held by governments (and the opposition, it must be added) to boost their ratings and give a false sign that new and exciting things are happening. Much of the time, ministers in the most “important” positions remain unchanged – Chancellors and Deputy Prime Ministers are usually particularly safe in their role, Foreign Secretaries slightly less so. The fact that it is usually less “important” ministers that are moved gives more weight to the accusation that nothing of any real consequence is happening.

David Cameron’s latest ploy appears to be to increase the number of women in the Cabinet (current Dave to women ratio following Chloe Smith’s resignation is 4:4) in an effort to trick women into thinking he cares with less than two years left before the election. But why now? Why weren’t there more women in Cabinet from the start? It’s all about polls.

And so one wonders – why do you find so little questioning of the validity of this pointless and superficial exercise? Why should the government (and again, the opposition) be able to get away with generating plenty of news coverage without any real scrutiny of just what they are doing (or rather, that they are barely doing anything)? Once again, there are good reasons to move Cabinet Ministers around into new positions. Certainly, new ministers may indicate a change of policy. Ultimately though, they are rarely more than a figurehead for something that was happening for other reasons anyway. It is hard to think of times when there could be a non-cynical reason that requires four, five, six or seven ministers to trade jobs. So instead of talking about what different appointments say about the current government , how about we talk about what going about this whole process says about this government, or any other in the same position?

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3 Responses to “Mid-term Cabinet Reshuffles – Acceptable Cynicism?”

  1. Jane Mc (Janey Liz) Says:

    This is a really good post. Cabinet shuffling on a Sunday night, just because you can?! Yeah, legit… It’s a shame that most reporters won’t see past the clattering rolodex of names and positions. It generates false interest and it always makes me wonder about the value of Minister titles – how is any MP qualified enough for a number of extremely different roles?

  2. danbenlee Says:

    Indeed, I think the reality lies more towards the median and “supremely untalented people who can be shifted anywhere with no real consequence”. I cite the Thick of It.

  3. Ezra Says:

    Cabinet Reshuffles should be banned altogether. The system needs serious reform. I’d rather live in a system overseen by technocrats who have “been there, done that” AND have big picture thinking – and I’m sure you will be able to find at least a few potential candidates in our country – than this disgrace of a system where as long as you knew the right people and have a Machiavellian streak in you. What qualifies Oxbridge PPE graduates to know ANYTHING about health, then defence, and then (ooh, please PM, I quite fancy a stab at) science budgets?

    Government should be run by those who have real experience in a sector but who are also economically and politically literate. True leaders of industry willing to step up and lobby on behalf of their sector with at least somewhat like minds representing different interests, and with a mediating leader who brings these various interests together. It should not run by hordes of careerist ideologues who end up infuriating everyone who works in the industry or sector they’re meant to reside over. Since when have workers in a given industry ever genuinely said of their ‘representative’ minister: “yep, good one this one, secures funding for us, knows what they’re doing when it comes to reform, and has their sector’s best interests at heart”.

    There’s something wrong with the government of a country when those who rule are those who want to rule. This is why the criteria for being a politician should be for those with at least 20 years experience in a technically or culturally useful field, and it should be based on duty, not prestige and self-serving interests. This is not even idealistic; it’s about finding the right people for the job, of which there are enough out there.


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