Past Prime Ministers have often been damaged by their reshuffles. The reason is simple. There is no sensible personnel function for Ministers in modern government.
It begins with the failure to map the interests, experience and qualifications of the talent pool, the MPs and peers available for appointment. It is worsened by those who may include friends and spin doctors of the Prime Minister who think the best way to conduct the run up to a reshuffle is a discussion of the merits and especially the failings of the candidates in the press without involving them. It can reach a climax with job offers to people who have no wish to do the job in question, allied to attempts to sack people from office who had no idea they were likely to lose their job and who are most reluctant to leave.
A badly conducted reshuffle ends with the Prime Minister having more unhappy colleagues. Those outside the tent who wanted to be Ministers have been passed over again, often with no explanation. Former Ministers have been bruised by the sacking and the unpleasant briefing that often accompanies it. Some Ministers who have been moved or kept in place remain unhappy because they are not doing the job they want or even deserve. So how could all this be changed and improved?
The first thing that needs doing is a Prime Minister needs to upgrade the Whips office to be more of a modern personnel function. Whips should know more about MPs’ past training, experiences and abilities. They need to have a way of keeping the PM informed of the talent available. They need to know what individual MPs and peers would like to do, and they need to manage expectations where these are unrealistic. In cases where they are possible they could guide the individual into what actions would be helpful for that MP or peer to take to make their appointment more likely. Proper mapping of wishes and skills might find many MPs and peers will be able to have a job they would like and is suited to them. Not all MPs want to be Ministers. Some want to be Select Committee Chairmen, or Deputy Speakers, or strong minded backbenchers. In my time as an MP I have only once been asked what job I would like to do. I made three suggestions. I was never told why I did not get any one of them!
The second thing that is required is better management of Ministers in post. I put in place a system of regular meetings between directly reporting Cabinet Ministers and the PM when I advised Margaret Thatcher. I felt it was important that a senior Minister should hear from the PM about what she wanted to see and what she thought of his department’s work, and that the Cabinet member should get a private opportunity to criticise what Number 10 was doing, or to ask for more help, or to warn where things might be difficult. I wanted to make sure there were no surprises either way. The PM needed to know the truth about the big picture in each department, and the Minister needed to know if he was supported or was expected to raise or change his game.
Cabinet Ministers should do this for their junior Ministers. I worked closely with junior Ministers when they reported to me, using a system of regular review of the progress they were making through weekly meetings and informal discussions. Cabinet Ministers should be consulted on the junior Ministers reporting to them before they are reshuffled.
The third thing that would help is to do more to mentor and train Ministers. There should be a course for those who want to be Ministers which most MPs could take whilst hoping for preferment. This would cover the law as it applies to Ministers, Ministerial powers, collective responsibility, handling the workload, managing the diary, relating to the public and media and working through Parliament. Doing the course would also be useful to MPs seeking to hold Ministers to account. Completion of it would not guarantee promotion.
The fourth thing is to manage retirements or “resignations”. Where the PM wishes to get rid of a colleague they should be given warnings of what is expected of them and what they need to improve before being sacked. If Ministers understand that positions generally are 2-5 years in length there should be no shame or bad briefing if their tenure is terminated, as there can be no automatic right to promotion. Some people will do a good job as junior Ministers for a period of years, and should be allowed to retire from the Ministerial role with thanks for their service. Entry into the Cabinet needs proof that the individual has a wider political pulling power, support within the Parliamentary party and the wider public, a strategic sense and an ability to manage a large organisation, amongst a range of requirements.l