Ready for the reshuffle?

In just a week’s time, Tony Blair will finally leave Downing Street for the last time, and the bloke from next door will move in, prompting a curious and potentially unprecedented Cabinet reshuffle. We all know it’s coming, and we know several big changes have to happen – but we don’t yet know exactly how far-reaching it will all be.
Let’s run through what we know: and can I say for the record, I don’t have any particular insight here. This is little more than ‘bloke in the pub’ status.

  • Gordon Brown will be leaving the Treasury, obviously. That’s one very important vacancy to be filled – and potentially two.
  • John Reid has already pledged to leave the Home Office, so that’s another empty seat. At least they can rest assured there won’t presumably be any further remit changes, following the recent spinning-off of Justice.
  • You won’t find too many people expecting Margaret Beckett and Patricia Hewitt to be staying in their current top-rank jobs. So that’s health and foreign affairs to be filled too.
  • There’s been plenty of speculation about the future of the DTI, questioning its very existence. In the current climate (pardon the pun), you can easily imagine energy policy being combined with Environment; science used to belong to Education, and could easily do so again. What would that leave?
  • Then, of course, there’s the Labour deputy leadership vote. Alan Johnson seems to be favourite there, and has apparently said he would want to stay as Education Secretary (subject, naturally, to the new PM’s wishes). Would the two other Cabinet-level candidates want to keep their current roles?
  • As I’m writing this, Michael Crick is telling Jeremy Paxman that Brown intends to bring in non-Labour Party people at junior Minister level (but apparently not at Cabinet level). Think of the implications there?!

So we could be looking at numerous new secretaries of state, new departments or radically redrawn departmental boundaries, and Ministers who don’t necessarily endorse the governing party’s view. Or perhaps not. At least when you look to a change of government at a general election, you have the party manifestos to work from. Not this time. Only rumours, only speculation.
As I’ve blogged before, reshuffles are a great opportunity to see which departments are ‘on the ball’. Departmental websites are surely now the primary ‘shop window’ – and expectations are high. Is it too much for users to expect all the changes to be documented and reflected ‘on the day’? Or rather, is there anything a department can do to prepare, when it doesn’t have a clue what might happen? (You can’t exactly register new domains speculatively!)
I know of a couple of Whitehall departments’s web teams who are (sensibly) making active preparations for what might happen. But the prospect of non-Labour ministers takes us into completely new territory. If he/she wanted to run a blog, and wanted to pass comment on an aspect of Labour policy (to which he/she never formally signed up), where does that leave us? Interesting times indeed.
Update: ‘a Cabinet post!’ ‘A Cabinet post? Did you say that?’ ‘I did say that.’ ‘Wonderful.’

6 thoughts on “Ready for the reshuffle?”

  1. One important point you missed – official communications, online or offline, are ‘government’, not party political. So your scenario wouldn’t arise, propriety wouldn’t allow ministers to blog on party political issues via official channels.

  2. I think the scenario still stands, Jeremy, to be honest.
    A junior minister (or indeed, a Cabinet minister?) who was part of the government, but had not entered government as a signatory to the government’s manifesto, could easily come across a matter within his/her ministerial remit where his/her own party’s view clashed with the governing party’s view. An obvious and perhaps pertinent example, given this morning’s news… Paddy Ashdown and Iraq. Would he be answerable for the (alleged) failings of his Labour predecessors? Would he be allowed to get away with ‘sorry mate, before my time’? The dividing line between ‘government’ and ‘party political’ just isn’t as clear-cut as we think it is.
    By bringing in a ‘talent’ from outside your own party, you’re making a clear statement that you don’t just want another ‘yes man’ in the job. You’re explicitly saying that the job needs doing, and even though you have big disagreements with the person in question, you still want that person in the job. Almost by definition, there will be clashes.
    Unquestionably (and I’m sure you would agree with this), it would ask questions of the Civil Service which have not been asked before. I don’t think this is explicitly a ‘blogging’ question, but it might be the most immediate outlet for any tension arising.

  3. Oops, I assumed Ashdown would have been involved in foreign policy somehow, but it now seems he was offered Northern Ireland secretary. So let me redefine the question… would Ashdown have to leave the Cabinet table if/when the subject of Iraq came up?

  4. These are tensions that civil servants always have to work with – where is the line between ‘government’ and party? That’s not new. The difference now is the transparency and exposure using these tools might create. Its stated on David Miliband’s blog that he won’t ‘lapse into party ranting’ precisely for that reason.
    Ministers are free to say what they like on their personal sites, one of our ministers blogs elsewhere but not on an ‘.gov’ site for that reason.

  5. Simon
    Scotland had a Lib-Lab coalition from 2003 to 2007. I think that Wales has a coalition as well still. This did not seem to pose major problems, although fault lines did build up in the run up to the May 2007 elections.
    There is a doctrine called Cabinet responsibility that is intended to ensure the Cabinet is as one on policy issues.

  6. There’s a big difference when it comes to coalition politics. A coalition usually occurs straight after an election. The opinion polls will have given clues that a coalition was on the cards. And as recent experience in Cardiff and Dublin has shown, it takes weeks for prospective coalition partners to negotiate and agree a shared programme for government.
    Cooperative politics is nothing new in the UK. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have some form of joint administration – largely because they all voted their respective assemblies on a PR basis. But the same can’t be said of Westminster, and the Cabinet table at Downing Street. General elections are first past the post, all or nothing, one winner and lots of losers.
    Don’t get me wrong; I would actually be very keen to see a less adversarial political climate, and including Paddy Ashdown would have been fascinating. But I don’t know how it could have survived in the negative political and media climate in this country. Feral beasts, and all that.

Comments are closed.