As we await David Cameron’s reshuffle, shadow minister Tessa Jowell and this paper’s assistant editor Michael White discuss whether the process has any merit
With David Cameron’s reshuffle imminent, Michael White, the Guardian’s assistant editor and former political editor, and Tessa Jowell, who is soon to step down as shadow Olympics minister, discuss the point of reshuffles – and whether they change anything for the better. Emine Saner listens in.
Michael White: Because there’s blood on the carpet, journalists love reshuffles but politicians – even prime ministers – don’t like them. They don’t like sacking people, they’re not sure who they are promoting, a reshuffle sometimes has unforeseen consequences, and it makes everyone nervous. But it’s great copy for us.
Tessa Jowell: That’s right. If I look back over my 13 years in government, few reshuffles moved the government on in developing important new areas of policy.
MW: Your great political patron, Tony Blair, was as bad as any of them. The Tories had, I think, 11 transport ministers in 18 years; Blair had quite a lot, and Gordon Brown managed three. There have been 34 transport secretaries since the second world war. One of my gripes is they reshuffle people out of a job just when they’re getting competent. John Reid had eight cabinet jobs in nine years.
TJ: Reshuffle speculation starts months before, so you have “walking-dead” ministers and their departments withdraw from them. I’ve heard stories of how civil servants will go slow on a policy that may be controversial but dear to the heart of a soon-to-be-sacked minister. It is a recipe for dysfunctional government. Different names appear – who’s for the chop and who’s for promotion – according to who is briefing the papers.
MW: A lot of that is notoriously inaccurate. All sorts of people are tipped for the sack by Cameron next week, but I bet most won’t have done to them what the papers confidently say.
TJ: He probably doesn’t yet know who is going to move to where. Probably the person who is in charge of the master board is Jeremy Hayward [the Cabinet secretary]. Most reshuffles damage the smooth delivery of policy. They tend to be organised much more on a tactical basis – short-term consideration rather than long-term policy effectiveness.
MW: So-and-so is tired, or hit the booze, or we need to move X or placate Y?
TJ: All that. In the governments I served in, certainly for the first 10 years, the relationship between No 10 and No 11 was a major factor in shaping reshuffles – there had to be enough GBs to offset any promotion of TB people. Pretty far down the list come suitability, experience and aptitude for a job. That is one of the problems. It’s rare, I suspect, that a prime minister gets everybody he wants in the places he wants them at the end of a reshuffle. People are not interviewed for the jobs. You could have a different approach, where members express an interest, and the people who are appointed have argued their qualification, interest and competence.
MW: In the old days you had to balance the left and right. Now you have to have women, north-south has become a sensitive subject, you have to have an ethnic minority representation. We haven’t got to the point – in a Paralympic week – where you need a disability [representation], perhaps that will come. These are not subject to the kind of job application considerations you’re talking about – a prime minister has to check all these factors regardless of whether the politician is suitable for the job, and often they clearly aren’t.
TJ: I would like to see a more rational and modern way of overcoming the late-night scrabbling around.
MW: You were brought in by Brown after Blair left, and told you were losing your cabinet position and were going to be allowed to stay on as minister for the Olympics and minister for London. That must have been unsettling.
TJ: It was, and I thought very hard about accepting that offer, particularly Gordon’s implausibility in saying: “Of course you will come to the cabinet, but nobody will know you’re not a full member.” I was very clear a year later, when he did another reshuffle, that if I was staying in the cabinet it would be as a full member.
MW: Was it ever plausible, and would it have resolved matters, if Blair had moved Brown from the treasury and made him a more subordinate minister?
TJ: That question ignores the nature of the relationship between them, which few have ever fully understood, which was their interdependence. Despite all the Blairite voices saying, “You should sack him or move him”, there was not a chance he was going to do that.
MW: We’ve talked about there being far too much churning of ministers. Apart from the resignations of David Laws, Liam Fox and Chris Huhne, Cameron hasn’t had a reshuffle.
TJ: Unless ministers are disastrously incompetent, stability is important to get things done. Cameron is to be commended for not using the short-term fix of a reshuffle to distract from the profound problems his government has. He has got to a point where it’s unavoidable.
MW: What is that point? It is about authority, isn’t it? It drains away if you’re not seen to be the master of your house.
TJ: The last authority a prime minister has is the power of patronage. The risk to Cameron now is that once he has done his reshuffle – and this is the point about reshuffles – you create as many enemies as you make friends.
MW: A reshuffle can’t save a government, but it can damage it. In 1962, Harold Macmillan, on what became known as the night of the long knives, sacked seven cabinet ministers including the chancellor. Macmillan was gone the following year.
TJ: It can’t save a government but it can buy short-term benefit for a prime minister. The worst reshuffle is the one designed to catch the six o’clock news. More rationality, more planning, more transparency, and less macho bullying would lead to better government.
MW: You’re about to step down from the shadow cabinet. If you were advising the class of 2005 or 2010, would you advise someone to take the job of undersecretary for paperclips in one of the less important departments? There’s a pretty good case for saying, “No thanks prime minister”, isn’t there? You learn on the back benches, don’t you?
TJ: In 1998 I made it clear I didn’t want to go in to the cabinet. I knew I had more to learn. It goes back to my point about how reshuffles could be a more open process, not just the PM sitting on the phone with the door locked. People can say: “I don’t think I’m ready yet, I want to finish the campaign for … or become an expert in … and then yes, I’d like to.”
MW: Is it true the government drivers’ pool always know who’s going before the ministers know themselves?
TJ: About 2006, there were rampant rumours. My driver said: “They say you’re going to transport.” I told him I’d had a conversation with Tony that left me clear there was not going to be a reshuffle. He walked into the drivers’ room where the reshuffle sweepstake was up on a board and said: “Tessa Jowell says there’s not going to be a reshuffle.” The board was wiped clean.