Friday 14 February 2020 6:09 am

Reshuffling the deck: Loyalty, not merit, is the key to a promotion

Politics may be show business for ugly people, but cabinet reshuffles have more of a feel of football’s transfer deadline day. 

Ambitious and hopeful MPs keep their phones close by, hoping to see a withheld number and hear the words “Downing Street for you”. Hacks and politicos watch on the sidelines, tracking who is in and who is out, propagating tentative and tenuous rumours. “Sharma to Business” is the ugly, uncool person’s “Onana to Chelsea”.

Yet for all the attention paid to the ups and downs of the UK’s top table, little thought is given to how ministers run our country and whether we get the right people for the job.  Promotions in any business depend to an extent on politics, but in government little else matters. 

Prime Ministers surround themselves with allies and enemies, knowing that few cause more trouble than MPs who think they should be more important than they are.

For a Prime Minister, the exercise of patronage is a key part of controlling their party. Even the most rebellious of MPs can be cowed by the thought of a red box and chauffeur, while cabinet collective responsibility prevents ministers from openly opposing government policy. The fact that ministers actually have to run government departments is often a secondary concern.

The result is ministers who are often out of touch with and overwhelmed by the ministries they run. Government departments are multi-billion pound organisations, with thousands of staff, huge working estates, and complex responsibilities. Taking charge of them is a daunting task, and one many MPs may not be up to.

Few MPs have experience at a senior management level before coming into politics. There is little chance to develop it once inside the Commons, until suddenly one is put in charge of a vast department, dealing with something they have never considered before. 

This is further compounded by the rapid turnaround of ministers which some departments face. There is an implicit hierarchy to positions, meaning room for promotion and demotion within cabinet. 

Ministers who do well are rapidly moved up the ladder, while others get booted down to less glamorous positions. Rumour has it that Margaret Thatcher would threaten truculent ministers with a map of Northern Ireland. Some vital but low status departments — most notably Housing — can have a new minister every year.

Government departments find themselves with inexperienced and unsuitable people at the helm. In recent years this has become striking. Think of Karen Bradley, the former Northern Ireland secretary, who admitted that until taking up her role she did not realise that Ulster voters split along sectarian lines.

Ministers who are out of their depth can become captive to the civil service, unable to interrogate properly the departments they are meant to run. Knowing they are unlikely to be judged on results makes them more concerned with playing politics than improving their areas. 

And even those that do commit may not be given the chance to succeed or fail. Rory Stewart promised to resign as prisons minister if violence was not reduced within a year, yet he had already been promoted when the year came around. 

Equally the political nature of appointments means that failure may not stymie a ministerial career. 

Priti Patel was sacked for holding unauthorised meetings with a foreign power, but she returned as Boris Johnson’s home secretary. 

“Compelling evidence” that Gavin Williamson leaked top secret information from the national security council led to him getting the sack, only to return to cabinet 10 weeks later.  

Chris Grayling managed an inexorable rise through the ranks despite everything he touched, from the courts to trains, seeming to fail. 

The Blairite ministries too saw people like Peter Mandelson boomerang back from bad behaviour.

For Britain to be ready for a post-Brexit world, we need ministers who can stay on top of increasingly complex briefs and deliver actual results. It may be a vain hope to trust that raw ability will trump politics in cabinet appointments, but much could be done to improve the situation.

More effort should be made to match ministers to their areas of expertise — whether this is detailed subject knowledge, or a proven ability to get stuff done. The cabinet should become more settled (easier now with a large majority) and less prestigious ministries should be seen as a place to prove one’s effectiveness, rather than a mere resting place on the greasy pole. 

Ultimately, ministers should be more accountable for what happens in their departments, valued for their successes, and shown that cock-ups have consequences.

Most of all, we need to change how we think of the cabinet. This is the managing board of UK Plc, trusted with engaging with the civil service and the public to drive forward better performance. 

The high drama of reshuffle day should matter less than who is capable of changing departments — and lives — for the better.

Main image credit: Getty

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