Mr Cameron was wise not to have a general reshuffle for almost two and a third years. There is a good case for stopping them in future.
The problems with reshuffles are legion. If you try to make lots of changes all at the same time, it only takes one change to go wrong and then the whole process becomes rushed and can looked muddled. There is not time to think it through and square all the people involved. When Iain Duncan Smith refused to be moved from DWP, and Nick Herbert turned down an alternative job, there had to a be hasty redrawing of the lists.
The reshuffle gets people excited or worried ahead of the date, and then allows them all to relax thereafter. It is the oppposite of continuous review and continuous improvement that is more normal in the private sector. The boss only has real authority in the run up to the big change over.
Concentrating all the moves at once means a lack of thought for many of them. People may be put into jobs they do not want or they are ill equipped to do. They may be put into a job with a potential conflict with something or someone else in their life the PM knows nothing about. These days many MPs have wives or husbands with important jobs and have to be careful about family conflicts of interest.
In summary it is all too easy to make mistakes, and all too difficult to correct them once the media spotlight is watching everyone’s move and trying to eavesdrop on every meeting.
So what could be done instead? Whilst I think there are too many Ministerial changes, I am not against change. It is an important part of motivating and managing. Some new people need to be brought in and some older people be asked to retire. Some should be promoted, and some given a chance to shine at the same level in a different department. It needs to be linked into a system of personnel management that makes sense, that avoids unpleasant surprises, and allows those making the big decisions to make them at leisure, reflecting on them and talking it through with the interested parties. A sensible system would have mini reshuflles from time to time to tackle a problem or highlight an issue, which were properly managed, were no surprise to those involved but were a surprise to the press and public.
Let us take one of the most controversial cases in this reshuffle, the case of the Transport Secretary. When the government reconsidered its stance on the Third runway for Heathrow, that should have led on to discussion with the relevant Ministers on how to handle any change of policy and how to deal with the constituency interests and views of the then Transport Secretary. If the government has decided to make a third runway at Heathrow a likely option, despite past promises, then of course they need to shift the Transport Secretary and explain why they are doing it. If they have no such intention the best way to deny the rumours is to keep her in post.
Making her move part of a general reshuffle does not persuade people it was just one of those things, unconnected to Heathrow. Rightly or wrongly they will think it is about that. It leads directly to the strong views of Zac Goldsmith and wider issues with handling MPs from both Coalition parties who have strongly defended the old policy.
When appointing new Junior Ministers it would be better to say to them the typical experience would be 4-5 years as a junior Minister. They should be told they will probably have a couple of departments during that time, unless they are keen to stay in one which they know well and are strongly committed to. They should be told promotion comes only to some, with ideas on how the Minister can shine to make promotion more likely. They should be told they will be given plenty of warning if they are to be dropped. They should have regular reviews with their Secretary of State whose job should include mentoring and supporting the junior Ministers.
Cabinet members should have regular meetings with the PM or a senior Cabinet Minister responsible for them. The Chancellor could look after the Chief Secretary, Transport and DWP. The Foreign Secretary could look after defence and Overseas Aid. Cabinet members should always know what is expected of them and their departments, and be told at regular intervals how well they are doing and what needs to be improved. When the PM thinks it is time to bring their stay in Cabinet to a close there should be an orderly process of management to avoid embarrassment and last minute decisions.
There will occasionally be times when urgent action is needed or surprise is a necessary weapon of management. In most cases Ministers would appreciate knowing where they stand and being able to manage expectations. They would keep it quiet if it were handled well and was obviously in their mutual interest to do so.
I think it a sad loss that Charles Hendry has left the government. He had a good command of his energy topic and was the voice to “keep the lights on” in energy policy formation. So too it is sad to see the end of Bob Neill, a local government Minister with a love of localism and a good knowledge of the Council world. Tim Loughton was a model Children’s Minister and Michael Fabricant a natural in the whips office. Gerald Howarth was a round peg in a round hole in the Defence Department, a job he loved.