The prime minister Theresa May decided to use 2018’s curtain-raising reshuffle as an opportunity to bring several new words into the Cabinet. Social Care and Housing now occupy the highest rank of political nomenclature, joining Digital, International Trade, Industrial Strategy and the reasonable Scrabble rack DExEU as this administration’s newcomers.
I suspect that many of the ministers trooping into Number 10 this week may have felt much like The Thick Of It minister Hugh Abbott did during his own reshuffle experience; merely grateful that his Department of Social Affairs was appended with the word ‘Citizenship’, as opposed to, say, Woodland Folk.
If you were searching for a list of the government’s political priorities, this litter of new nouns is not a bad indicator. Consider, too, the policy fiefdoms now relegated from the top table; Climate Change, Innovation and Skills – topics which have enjoyed little play in recent news cycles, and even less interest from Number 10.
But do departmental name changes ever really amount to much? Is it going to make life any different for the civil servants working in these freshly minted offices?
Other than giving the GOV.UK team a busy day of updating logos and causing mild havoc for IT teams trying to set up fresh email addresses, the instant answer would appear to be no. At first glance, and indeed second and third as well, this year’s reshuffle looks very much like the political version of a classic Whitehall wheeze — put the hard bit in the title, and then continue on with doing much as you were before.
In my experience, this gambit works especially well when writing an official report where, usually thanks to some over-excited political spinning, there is a general expectation it will include fresh thinking. As almost nobody is going to read the actual document, the risk of it being found out that the radicalism therein extends no deeper than the cover page is minimal. Furthermore, those that do read the document and complain about its lack of content were probably always going to hate it, so there’s no real damage done there.
Apropos of nothing, the government’s ‘Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future’ can be seen here.
Conversely, official reports that do contain fresh thinking must of course employ titles that are as boring as possible.
The same logic applies to department names. Imagine the paroxysm of anguish if a Prime Minster genuinely wanted to rename Her Majesty’s Treasury or the Home Office. Broadsheet leader writers would have a field day. But of course this will never happen, largely because there is limited need or value in using more words to clarify what the most ancient offices of state do. Titular words only serve to constrain the zone of control a department can roam across without looking over its shoulder. The old timers avoid them because a core part of the department’s job description is sweeping up the bits nobody else will put their hand up for. The Treasury is as the Treasury does. It would have things no other way.
It is no secret that name changes are little more than a distraction ploy, designed to furnish or abrade ministerial egos rather than represent actual institutional change. Prime ministers are not stupid. They know this too. The question is why they bother doing it.
Possible clues emerge from administrations that have done this before. The late-era Blair and Brown governments, both cabals of electorally wounded big beasts, spent inordinate amounts of time messing about with departmental letterheads. This meddling was not always well thought out. Alan Johnson’s autobiography revealed that he was moments away from becoming the Secretary of State for a new Department of Productivity, Energy, Industry And Science, truly an acronym for the ages.
Like job title inflation in any profession, ministerial name changes clearly don’t amount to all that much. However, they do offer a way for weak executives to hand out promotions for powerful subordinates at a relatively low political cost. The ministers winning exactly the kind of bigger policy briefs that demand greater focus – social care is a perfect example – are very likely to be exactly the most ambitious characters keeping a distracted eye on the political machinations needed to ascend the party ladder. Those who are the most keen being seen to have bigger policy jobs are almost by definition likely to be those least committed to delivery over the long-term.
Given that patronage lies behind most of this, it is a fair bet that a PM who feels the need to mess about with Whitehall’s borders is a weak one. Weak Prime Minsters lack control. Governments that lack control make life harder for civil servants.
For the many officials toiling away during this most strange of Parliaments, none of this represents wonderful news. People working in several departments reported that the last 18 months have felt rather like a military campaign; protracted periods of glacial slowness, boredom and displacement activity, interspersed with flashes of intense, confused liveliness. That seems set to continue.
The real consequence for the civil service of 2018 opening with a reshuffle kerfuffle sadly has relatively little to do with the rearrangement of policy agendas. It is a darker indication of the government’s health.