Did you really imagine reshuffles were designed to get the best possible people in the most important jobs?
It is amazing that this country didn’t disappear down the plughole years ago, given the way it’s run. On Thursday, the new political and constitutional reform committee in the Commons asked about ministerial reshuffles.
Did you imagine these were designed to get the best possible people in the most important jobs? Then you are a poor deluded fool! Nobody gets a job merely because they might do it well. As Lord Turnbull, the former head of the civil service, put it, “a reshuffle is not about getting a better job done. It is about coping with the pressure of competing ambition. Making the organisation function better is low in the scheme of things.”
But we love our reshuffles, and probably have more than in any other country where political change is not effected by assassination. As the former minister Chris Mullin said: “New Labour just liked to throw all the pieces in the air and see where they landed.”
Mullin himself was the sixth minister for Africa in the Labour years; by the end, there had been nine. There were also 13 European ministers, including Geoff Hoon twice. “And there were eight secretaries of state for work and pensions, which is a very complex area.”
Turnbull was grave and measured, though what he described was a cross between a snake pit and a Laurel and Hardy flick. As soon as someone has settled in, they move. Philip Hammond was prepared to be chief secretary to the Treasury and knew the work. Then there was a coalition and he was stuck with transport – until Liam Fox resigned (entirely unregretted by Turnbull, it seems) and he was pitched into defence – where Labour had four top men in five years.
One week, Mullin sat through a grisly statement about air traffic control, about which he knew nothing at all, thinking, “Thank God I’m not in charge of that. Then on Monday I was.”
Prime ministers regard the most important job as balancing the party: Blairites versus Brownites under Labour, Europeans against Eurosceptics now. We also have far more junior ministers than we need, because the relevant act provides for 110 to be paid. So many of them have non-jobs. Mullin: “Blair used junior posts as sweeties to hand out to the boys and girls as a reward for good behaviour.”
At one stage, he had pointed out to Blair the statistics on the apparently ceaseless roundabout of government jobs. “He said, ‘We don’t do this very well, do we?’ and I thought, ‘Well, who’s this ‘we’?'”
Both men made the point that, these days, almost all ministerial jobs involve meetings abroad and that as soon as someone has become familiar to their opposite numbers, they are whisked away. Mullin said that at 3.40 one afternoon he had been on the phone talking to his opposite number in Washington about Charles Taylor, the Liberian dictator. “At 4pm, I was no longer a minister.”
And secretaries of state are only rarely asked who they would like in their ministerial team. Turnbull did not mind this too much. “As with Wedgwood Benn, there is the danger of a coven!” He spat out the last word as if he had just found a bogey on his tongue.