Following weeks of speculation, the Prime Minister carried out a reshuffle of his cabinet ministers last month – the second major reshuffle of the Johnson premiership and his first since February 2020. Lots has been written already about what this means for individual ministers – was Dominic Raab demoted? Will Liz Truss manage to balance her new responsibilities as Foreign Secretary with her role as minister for Women and Equalities?
But beyond the confines of academia and civil society, the constitutional repercussions of the reshuffle have received considerably less attention, despite changes in who is now overseeing several significant pieces of legislation that are currently making their way through parliament.
Who’s in charge of constitutional reform?
A month after the reshuffle, little information is available on who is now responsible for specific aspects of constitutional policy – attempting to find out more on individual departments’ pages only leads one to discern that ‘Responsibilities for this role will be confirmed soon.’ It is true that parliament has been in recess since shortly after the reshuffle for party conference season, thus allowing for some further time for final tweaks and changes to be made – although this lack of completion did mean that some events at Conservative Party conference had to be cancelled, with the ministers invited now covering other briefs.
Two of the most high-profile moves, particularly for those of us working on democratic reform, were those in the Cabinet Office. First, Steve Barclay has now replaced Michael Gove as minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, with Gove being moved to what was until recently known as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and which has – following the reshuffle – been rebranded as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (this has led to concerns being raised by some senior leaders about the term ‘local government’ being dropped from the department’s title).
It appears that Gove will retain both his elections brief and his responsibility for defending the union in his new role. With the new department now in charge of highly politically sensitive issues, such as housing and planning reform, and the Conservatives’ election-winning pledge to level up the country (Neil O’Brien, the prime minister’s levelling up adviser, has joined Gove as a junior minister and will work with him on this agenda), it remains to be seen what prominence will be given to constitutional reform issues.
What will happen with the Elections Bill?
Second, Chloe Smith has been moved from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Work and Pensions. Smith previously held the role of minister for the constitution and devolution, and had spearheaded the government’s Elections Bill. Her move was somewhat surprising considering the minister had, the day prior to the reshuffle, given evidence on the Elections Bill to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs select committee and, the day of the reshuffle, announced that First Past the Post was to be extended to all mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales.
Currently, it is still not known who will be in charge of this bill, with initial speculation pointing towards Christopher Pincher and more recently towards Kemi Badenoch, with the latter now listed as a member of the Elections Bill Committee. Given the breakneck speed with which the Elections Bill is making its way through parliament, this ministerial move and subsequent lack of clarity are concerning. The Elections Bill is a significant piece of legislation with far-reaching consequences for how our elections are held, and has been the subject of considerable debate over not just the substance of the proposals (such as the introduction of mandatory photo ID at the polling station and changes made to the governance of the Electoral Commission), but also over their procedure. Unlike the Online Safety Bill, another significant piece of legislation currently being debated in parliament, the Elections Bill was subject to limited pre-legislative consultation and scrutiny; and unlike previous considerable changes to our elections in the late nineties and noughties (e.g. the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act), it was not preceded by cross-party engagement and/or an independent review.
Further bills and government programmes currently remain in ministerial limbo – Chloe Smith was one of the driving forces behind both the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill, soon due to receive second reading in the Lords, and the Cabinet Office-led Defending Democracy Programme, launched in 2019 to serve as a cross-Whitehall forum to work jointly on democratic priorities. The government’s proposed reform of judicial review, meanwhile, will now be the responsibility of new Justice Secretary Dominic Raab, after Robert Buckland – who had been in charge of the brief for the past two years – was dismissed.
All of this raises questions about the government’s approach to constitutional issues. Innovation can enhance policymaking and a fresh start with diverse perspectives can allow for new and more effective solutions. But – insofar as constitutional reform is concerned – the latest reshuffle appears to have taken place without proper consideration as to its broader impacts (how will the new department for levelling up approach disparate issues such as housing and intergovernmental relations?) and to what it means for legislation already in progress.
Too often constitutional and democratic issues are side-lined or get kicked into the long grass in Westminster – the typical approach to reform having historically been one of discrete, incremental changes.
However, given the multiple constitutional complexities brought to light in recent years, with how constitutional issues interact with and affect economic and material outcomes being brought to the fore, it is vital that the constitution and democratic reform are viewed in a holistic and comprehensive manner, and treated with the same consideration as the great offices of state, not as an afterthought.
Michela Palese is Research and Policy Officer at the Electoral Reform Society.
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.