The Complex Implications of Reshuffles

By: Laura Gherman

To understand the significance of reshuffles, we must first understand the motivations of the Prime Minister enacting them. The primary one of all Prime Ministers is to maintain power, and this can be achieved by winning elections and fending off internal party rivals to avoid any challenge to their leadership. 

Cabinet reshuffles involve either promotions or demotions for ministers, or a relocation of ministerial portfolios. It is a complex process which can involve the creation of new government departments. A reshuffle has the power to ignite large, innovative policy initiatives. A reshuffle can bring lasting, positive changes to the country. Interestingly, though, despite their huge influence, reshuffles are rarely conducted with the primary aim of amending departmental administrative capacity. In fact, often, reshuffles are conducted in response to battles in Cabinet, changes in policy, and of course, unfavourable opinion polls. The expectation is that a Prime Minister reshuffles their ministers more often when they become less popular with either voters or backbench MPs, or as we have seen more of in recent times, with both. 

Journalists follow these moves closely and the effect they can have on the future of the country is huge, but the significance of the frequency of reshuffles has been overlooked when evaluating what effect ministers can have on specific sectors.

To use the Department for Education as an example, in 2022, the Department had five secretaries of state – Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan for two days, James Cleverly for three months, Kit Malthouse for just under two months, and finally, Gillian Keegan, the current Education Secretary who has been in post for nine months to date. In contrast to this, from 2014 until 2021, there were six education secretaries. 

Other than the frequent changes of education secretaries, the Department has also had changes in ministerial appointments, with the only consistent face since 2010, including in his capacity as Shadow Minister, being Nick Gibb, the current Schools Minister. These frequent changes in leadership are reflected in our schools and have made the sector itself quite fragile. 

Today we see schools which are running out of their deficit budget, a lack of teaching assistants, difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers, a drop in school standards, SEND schools having to make huge cuts, industrial action across higher education with university students acquiring tens of thousands of pounds in debt and a sub-par apprenticeship system. No real or meaningful reforms have come out of the Department for Education in 2023 or 2022 and the only success that it can claim is that it managed to resolve the teachers strike. The Department seems unable even to provide schools with meaningful guidance on how to handle the increasing number of trans students, leaving this a maze for teachers to navigate. Much of this malaise is attributable to the frequent changes of leadership in the Department.

Reshuffles are not costless to the country. Ministers who are in post for short periods of time cannot develop the administrative or policy expertise required to effectively oversee their departments and deliver lasting, thought through and meaningful changes. The expertise acquired, or rather, lost, through frequent ministerial changes ironically means that the Department is unable to deal with change and becomes overly reliant on guidance from officials and civil servants. 

Frequent reshuffles may also create the impression among the electorate, party donors, party members, and parliamentarians that the government is unstable, which can cause lasting damage to the government and its credibility. 

Reshuffles are now increasingly likely when the popularity of a government declines, but they are now almost certain when the popularity of a Prime Minister declines. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in its second report of session 2013-2014 The Impact and Effectiveness of Ministerial Reshuffles’ declared that Westminster had a ‘reshuffle culture’, which they noted has a negative impact on the effectiveness of a government. The situation has not improved since. The committee strongly held that ministers should stay in post long enough to make a difference and that reshuffles, whilst to some degree unavoidable, require a strong justification. Of course, the extent to which ministers can ‘make a difference’ is very much in the eye of the beholder as Key Performance Indicators aren’t something that Westminster is familiar with. 

In addition, the Committee also noted that it is harder to keep ministers accountable for policy which they oversaw if they have moved to a different post. This is a point which has often been lost in talk of reshuffles, but it has had a significant impact on the development of the UK constitution in recent years. It takes time to see whether meaningful policy is effective, so whilst the Committee recommended there be fewer reshuffles to ensure that the mechanisms of government run well, it also lamented that ministers staying in post to oversee policy changes from the beginning to completion was increasingly rare. 

While for any party leader reshuffles have to strike a balance between their potentially invigorating effects and potentially challenging internal party politics, it is a difficult balance to strike. More often than not, the latter takes precedence over the former. For government departments to function effectively, they need to have continuity and consistency in leadership, but little has been said over the years about the need to explore restriction on how often ministerial reshuffles can take place and little spoken about the need to prioritise the mechanisms by which the government rules over these internal party shifts. 

Governing and balancing power within a political party are often counterproductive acts, frequently placing Prime Ministers in difficult positions. A time limit on ministerial reshuffles might offer a way out, providing the stability that governments so often need. Indeed, should such limits be enacted, they might also limit internal party battles. There would be less incentive to disrupt a government for personal advancement if ministers were appointed for a set amount of time. 

But what would such a change mean for the Prime Minister and the power their office holds over the Cabinet? A time limit on ministerial appointments would give ministers more security and continuity in their role, meaning that they would be able to push through preferred policy initiatives, less reliant on the approval of Downing Street. Ministers would become more autonomous, weaking the position of the Prime Minister, and instead pursing the policy agenda and reforms they deemed necessary. The change would also give ministers the opportunity to prove their competence and expertise, which in the competitive world of politics is never a benefit to any party leader. Consequently, given the power to change these rules lies with the Prime Minister, and that Prime Ministers perceive it as beneficial to retain them, the prospect of future reform in this area is rather limited. Nonetheless, if we are unable to move to a position where ministers can expect to remain in departments for more than a span of months, the country will suffer for it.

Suffice it to say that reshuffles and ministerial appointments are always a challenge for the Prime Minister, but the real impact they hold is over the country at large. In particular, reshuffles often represent a problem for sectors which are reliant on direct and consistent departmental guidance. Too often failures in departments are blamed on ministerial ineptitude or civil service incompetence, perhaps before jumping to such judgements, we should consider how long these figures have been in post. Perhaps the real blame lies with an increasing compulsion to change, to rejig, to reshuffle. 

Laura Gherman.

Laura Gherman is a parliamentary aide to a senior backbench Conservative MP and the Vice-Chair for LGBT+ Conservatives. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.