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Quentin Langley: A tour of the Prime Minister's reshuffle options

6a00d83451b31c69e20168e810ff08970c-150wiQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School. He has previously taught PR and Political Communications at London Metropolitan and Cardiff Universities. Follow Quentin on Twitter.

It is perhaps surprising that there has been no unforced reshuffle with the second anniversary of the coalition only weeks away. It is known that David Cameron was critical of Tony Blair’s approach to reshuffles, moving ministers on a whim, sometimes more than once a year (John Reid being a notable example). In ten years, Blair had seven Leaders of the House of Commons and four Home Secretaries. I had assumed that when Cameron promised more stable appointments he had in mind Margaret Thatcher’s model in which there was a major reshuffle after each general election and halfway through each Parliament with minor reshuffles around the recess of the intervening years. As time went on, she settled on timing the reshuffle for the beginning of the summer recess, so that new ministers would have some weeks to prepare before Parliament resumed and sacked ministers would at least get the summer off. With no unforced reshuffle last year, it is plain that the PM has rejected that model. This may be because the coalition agreement complicates things. While the PM remains responsible for all appointments – as  Nick Clegg has confirmed – Lib Dem appointments, and possibly senior policy making roles in Conservative hands – need to be handled by consensus between the PM and DPM.

All that said, we can probably expect a major reshuffle this summer and I would anticipate another in the latter months of the Parliament, probably around Christmas of 2014.

Whenever there is a change of government it is always interesting to note who grows and who shrinks in office. Some people have talents peculiarly suited to either government or opposition, and do not cope well with the transition, while others thrive on changing to the opposite side of the Parliamentary aisle. In government, George Osborne has clearly grown in stature. Always well-regarded by the closest observers of the Conservative leadership, he was nonetheless derided by opponents and the media as ‘boy George’. He is young, and looks younger than his years, which did not help him in this most high-profile opposition role, but youth is something which time inevitably cures, and he has seemed since day one in office to be a master of his brief.

Cable & Red Box II

Vince Cable is clearly Osborne’s obverse. Putting aside policy issues for the moment, Cable the opposition spokesman always displayed a mastery of the issues and never, for a moment, seemed out of his depth. Until the leader debates propelled Clegg to stardom, Lib Dem campaigning focussed on the Clegg-Cable team, in which the young and little known leader was bolstered by the reassuring face of the older man. In office, Cable has seemed, even at his best, a recalcitrant and grumpy malcontent, unwilling or unable to accept the rules of collective responsibility. At his weakest he has seemed a bewildered old man, who is simply not coping with the complexities of office.

Andrew Lansley was well-regarded, in opposition, for his passion and his depth of understanding. In office he seemed unprepared for the critical role of presenting his policies to the public, without which there is no accountability, no transparency, and not even the consent of the governed. His thoughtful and academic approach is critical to governance, but could be better deployed than in this, most public-facing, of positions.

Will these ministers be moved? Cable is strengthened by the fact that David Laws and Chris Huhne have already departed. For the Lib Dems to lose three of their five appointees to the Cabinet in just two years would embarrass the Party and the Deputy Prime Minister. But Danny Alexander has widely impressed people, including those very disappointed to see the departure of Laws. He would be a most suitable replacement for Cable. There are also many in both coalition parties who would be happy to see Laws return to the cabinet, either as Business Secretary or replacing Alexander in the role he was forced to leave in 2010. Lansley would be a fine Leader of the House, or bolstering Clegg’s team at the Cabinet Office. A simple job swap with Francis Maude might be the simplest move.

The top team in the government is likely to remain stable. While it would be possible for the role of Deputy Prime Minister to be combined with a departmental role, with the Home Office much the most likely, that would be a significant change in the way the coalition is managed. A strong Cabinet Office team around the DPM was a clear strategic choice. Francis Maude, Oliver Letwin and Michael Moore are part of this team to deliver what Blair promised and signally failed to live up to: joined up government. Clegg will therefore stay where he is and Osborne will remain as Chancellor. William Hague will continue to hold office at the highest level and, while he would be an outstanding Leader of the Commons, much of the central direction of the government has by-passed this position, given the strength of the Cabinet Office team, and there seems little reason to move him from the Foreign Office. If it were necessary to promote one of those running a spending department – Michael Gove being the stand out candidate – it seems clear that Theresa May is more vulnerable to a move than anyone else holding one of the ‘Great Offices of State’.

While Gove and Iain Duncan Smith have proved to be extremely effective Secretaries of State, and both could serve with distinction at a higher level, the posts they hold now are of critical importance and great complexity. It is probably not enough to simply push through legislation and leave the implementation to a less experienced hand. Both will probably stay in post until the end of the Parliament, pushing the reform agenda further forward.

The five posts held by the Liberal Democrats are not likely to be changed. While the Coalition Agreement does not require the Party to hold the precise posts they do now, any change would produce knock on balancing requirements that would needlessly complicate things. If Clegg stays at the Cabinet Office and a Lib Dem is needed as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the scope for other changes is minimal. While Secretary of State for Scotland (which probably needs to be held not only by a Lib Dem, but one representing a Scottish constituency) could be combined with almost any other job, downgrading Clegg’s Cabinet Office support would probably be a mistake. If the Lib Dems lost the energy brief – which has already changed hands anyway – it would probably need to be replaced by something else as dear to their hearts, such as environment or transport, another position which has already been changed.  That leaves only the Business Secretary’s role open to possible change. Since Cable is much the most vulnerable individual, this is worth dwelling on. It is likely that the Lib Dems would react badly to their input to economic policy being downgraded. That said, if they were to get a more significant spending department instead, it might be palatable. And the idea of Laws or Alexander carrying forward the NHS reforms might appeal to Conservatives. The policies would be easier to sell if they were seen as the product of a coalition consensus, and Lib Dems might see gaining this department as a victory, even if the individual appointed was an Orange Book fundamentalist, just as committed to reform as Conservatives.

Margaret Thatcher’s policy of having separate ‘war time’ and ‘peace time’ Party Chairmen, with the position not carrying cabinet rank in the first half of each Parliament, has much to recommend it. It is likely that the Conservative Party would welcome a new Chairman, more in the mould of Eric Pickles than Sayeeda Warsi. This would probably be someone with an easy TV manner, management ability, and strong loyalty to David Cameron. The most obvious choice is probably Grant Shapps, who is one of those most obviously ready for a promotion in any case, and another contender for the likely vacancy at the Health Department.

Alongside Shapps, Chris Grayling, Nick Herbert and Alan Duncan are clear candidates for promotion. Patrick McLoughlin has been less than impressive and Andrew Mitchell largely anonymous, despite having almost the only growing budget of any minister. Mitchell might be better deployed in McLoughlin’s job. Caroline Spelman’s early misstep has been followed by a very low profile. But Warsi and May are both vulnerable to being moved, and this might strengthen Spelman’s hand. The PM would not want his reshuffle to be seen as a purge of women, and neither Spelman nor May has done anything actively to deserve being sacked. Kenneth Clarke’s former reputation as a formidable fighter seems to be behind him, and retirement might be appropriate.

This summer’s likely reshuffle will be made with the aim of providing a stable team to last the bulk of this Parliament. That is why a purge of unimpressive but not actually disastrous ministers may be severe. The PM will want to make way for some rising stars, especially as some were passed over as a result of the Coalition Agreement.

It is likely, however, that there will be another major reshuffle before the election. This will be after the 2014 Queen’s Speech but before the 2015 budget, and will mark the end of the present Coalition Agreement. When the election is in the spring it creates a mammoth 18 month first session of Parliament, leaving the fifth session to be a brief six months. Such a session is used only for tidying up, uncontentious legislation and, of course, the final budget of the Parliament. These days, the budget is used not only to set taxes for the upcoming fiscal year, but to set out medium term plans. The coalition parties will wish to ensure that the 2015 budget is passed, but will also wish to set out different visions for the future so that they can fight the election on different manifestoes.  The best way of achieving this would be for the Coalition Agreement to evolve into a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, under which the Lib Dems will agree to abstain on the budget – thus ensuring that it passes – but are free to speak against it, setting out an alternative strategy. This will mean the Lib Dems leaving the government, and forming their own ‘shadow cabinet’ for the run up to the election. The same arrangement was made when Labour left Churchill’s wartime coalition a few months before the 1945 election.

Such a move would, obviously, create five cabinet vacancies, though the cabinet could probably manage without a Scottish Secretary for a few months. Much the most high profile vacancy would be Deputy Prime Minister. That role would probably go to William Hague, and it is likely that he would move sideways from the Foreign Office to the Cabinet Office at the same time. This would free him from major departmental responsibilities so that he could tour the country rallying Conservative activists for the election. It will be interesting to see who would replace Hague at the Foreign Office under such circumstances. If it were someone obviously ready for promotion – such as Gove – we could reasonably assume this was meant as a permanent replacement, with Hague taking a new role after the election, in the event of the Party winning a majority. A stop-gap appointment, such as George Young or Lord Howell – a former cabinet minister in the very unusual position of serving as a minister of state – would probably indicate that he was keeping the seat warm for Hague’s return.

Those who believe that Nick Clegg has been promised a European Commissionership should note that the reshuffle I have suggested for December 2014 would fit this timing perfectly. Though I think Clegg is an unlikely choice, that position will certainly create a vacancy in the ranks of the government.


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