Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Reshuffle the System

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Reshuffle the System

Article excerpt

If all the speculation about a reshuffle is to be believed, around half of our cabinet ministers have cause to be quaking in their boots. For in order to make way for Mandelson, Byers, Milburn, Michael, Liddell and Jowell, to name but a few of those tipped for promotion in recent days, a large number of the current occupants would have to be sacked.

A ministerial purge after a year in office and with the government still riding high in the polls would be absurd. Harold Macmillan's Night of the Long Knives, when he sacked half his cabinet (the wrong half, said Harold Wilson), took place at a time in the early 1960s when the Conservatives had been in power for several years and were clearly heading for electoral defeat. Tony Blair wants a cabinet closer to his own political outlook and will therefore almost certainly sack a couple of ministers to make room for Peter Mandelson and, probably, Alan Milburn. But like Margaret Thatcher, who brought in allies such as Norman Tebbit more than two years after her election win, Blair should wait longer for a more extensive reshuffle; unlike Thatcher he is no danger of being driven off course by political recalcitrants like the Tory "wets".

The highly charged drama of cabinet reshuffles makes them seem more important than they usually are. In his final years John Major conducted several. None helped the government recover in the polls or perform more competently. For now, Blair should focus his attention on reforming the structure of government. Rightly, he has been worried about the number of ministers who have been struck down by "departmentalitis", viewing policy and strategy from the perspective of their insular Whitehall departments rather than in terms of the government as a whole. …

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