Reshuffles rarely succeed in saving bad governments

 
Tom Welsh
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THE history of the reshuffle reads like a drab succession of failed careers and forgotten initiatives. Who remembers Harold Macmillan’s ruthless removal of a third of his cabinet in 1962? Who can name the 12 transport secretaries since 1997? Why was Lord Alan Sugar made an “enterprise champion” in 2009?

Reshuffles come in many forms, but few reassert control, reemphasise political priorities, or restore energy. They’re mostly forced by scandal, shock resignations, or a pitiful performance in a local election. Sometimes it’s just an attempt to appear dynamic – how else to explain Tony Blair’s phrenetic creation of government departments?

But amid this morass, some stand out as particularly good, bad, or peculiar. As news leaks of the coalition’s first major reshuffle, we would do well to bear these lessons in mind.

First comes the good. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher’s position was weak. Her cabinet was split between Wets (1980s Lib Dems) and Drys (monetarists). Unemployment was high, but Thatcher was committed to controlling inflation. Cabinet tensions were disrupting this mission, but Thatcher knew she was right.

What did she do to her critics? Her 1981 Budget was a masterpiece in riding brutally over the concerns of her objectors. And her September 1981 reshuffle was more masterful politics. Those who were disloyal at her most vulnerable moment were removed – replaced by those with a conviction that the central purpose of her government, controlling inflation, was right. Thatcher’s September 1981 reshuffle shows the power of facing down and sacking those who fail to commit to your agenda.

Then comes the bad. In 2006, Blair led his party to third place in local elections. His leadership was under pressure and, like a caged wolf, he desperately sought a sacrifice to prove his authority. He sacked home secretary Charles Clarke, and the same old names were shifted about. Sir Menzies Campbell, then Lib Dem leader, likened it to “trying to shuffle a battered pack of cards.”

Blair’s mistake was to attempt renewal without effecting change. He knew his position was weak, but his reshuffle did nothing to change his government’s fundamental flaw – Gordon Brown was paralysing reform. He could have dismissed Brown, but he lacked the courage.

Perhaps the UK’s worst reshuffle was Brown’s weird attempt to create a “government of all the talents.” He made Lord Digby Jones, former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, minister for trade. What happened? Jones resigned after a year, and called the experience “one of the most dehumanising” experiences of his life.

What’s the lesson? Eye-catching appointments don’t work if they’re not thought through. Jones, a businessman, was unlikely to fit well in Whitehall’s bureaucratic nightmare.

Unless David Cameron’s reshuffle removes the opponents of reform and growth, leads to genuine (not cosmetic) change, and avoids wild headline grabbing, history will judge it to be a failure. There’s still time for him to be a Thatcher, not a Brown.

Tom Welsh is a financial features writer at City A.M.