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Reshuffles can often make matters much worse

8 January 2018

2:31 PM

8 January 2018

2:31 PM

As with most reshuffles, today’s is being viewed largely as a test of the Prime Minister’s strength. Will she move the ministers who aren’t working well in their current posts? Will she underwhelm with what she eventually manages to do? Will she accidentally appoint Chris Grayling to another job for 30 seconds? So far, that test of strength isn’t going so well, with the attention largely focusing on deleted tweets and people getting out of cars.

It’s easy on reshuffle day to forget the impact that moving ministers around has on government. Not just in the sense that we can tell how powerful the Prime Minister really is as a result of the appointments she makes – and can’t make – but also because turnover causes delays in decisions as a new Secretary of State tries to get their head around a complex brief and work out what direction they want to take the department in. A change of direction means policies end up being only half-implemented, or those who are supposed to implement the policies end up being totally confused.

If, as tends to happen in this country, reshuffles occur fairly frequently, then ministers never get a real chance to get their teeth into the brief. There is a happy medium between the view that every Secretary of State should have direct personal experience and expertise in their sector, whether it be the Health Secretary needing to have gone to medical school, the Education Secretary knowing what it is to teach 14 year olds on a Friday afternoon, or the Environment Secretary being an upland sheep farmer, and the view that ministers just need to be good generalists who can get the gist of things enough to be able to have a hunch about what to do. Government policy cannot be delivered on the basis of a gist; that’s when blunders occur.

Two of the areas in the most mess at the moment in terms of policy are housing and justice. It just so happens that these briefs tend to change with every single reshuffle, and each new minister has a rather different view about how to do things, which might be why we aren’t building enough homes and our prisons are in what might kindly be called a precarious position.

So reshuffles might show how strong or weak a Prime Minister is, but they still have a propensity to weaken the government’s ability to do things well. And May once pitched herself as a woman who likes getting things done.

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