Ministerial churn is frantic and destructive, but good government necessarily moves slowly

Liz Truss should prioritise stable government, with ministers staying in post longer enough to master their responsibilities and gain officials' trust
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By Lord Wallace

29 Sep 2022

The ministerial code declares that "ministers should be professional in their relationships with the civil service and treat all those with whom they come into contact with consideration and respect". But fewer ministers now stay in any post long enough to develop relationships of mutual trust with the officials with whom they work. Dominic Cummings strongly criticised the habit of civil servants moving every three to four years from one set of responsibilities to another, arguing that this prevented them from grasping the full complexity of the issues for which they were responsible. He failed to note that such criticism also applies to ministers.

Ministerial reshuffles are an intrinsic part of prime ministerial management of their parties. But the speed at which senior and junior ministers have moved from one position to another has sharply increased since 2015. Liz Truss herself has held six ministerial posts in different departments since she first joined the government in 2012. She was secretary of state for justice (and lord chancellor) for just under 11 months. Treasury officials worked for three chancellors in the 18 years between 1997 and 2016, but have had to adjust to five changes at the top in the six years since then.

The Conservative electoral victory in 2015, No.10 proclaimed, would replace "the chaos of coalition" with "strong and stable single-party government". In the seven years since then civil servants have instead faced the musical chairs of constant change: six foreign and business secretaries, seven cabinet ministers for Defra and for justice (three in one year in 2019), and no less than nine secretaries of state for culture, media and sport – now including digital policy as well. The churn at lower levels has been at least as frantic, and similarly destructive of consistent policy: seven ministers for higher education in seven years, nine housing ministers without enough time to get to know their officials or their brief.

"The Conservative electoral victory in 2015, No.10 proclaimed, would replace 'the chaos of coalition' with 'strong and stable single-party government'. Civil servants have instead faced the musical chairs of constant change"

The factional nature of internal Conservative politics has accentuated the disruption of Whitehall by constant changes of ministerial office. New ministers arrive with ideas (and special advisers) gathered from one of the many competing Conservative think tanks, anxious to make an impression in their short time in post, impatient with officials who suggest that shifts in policy need preparation. Speeches are made, green papers published, bills sometimes hurriedly drafted, before they move on and their successor arrives, with different assumptions and different think tank recommendations.

One of the underlying tensions between ministers and civil servants is that the former are necessarily concerned with campaigning, and the latter with government. Campaigning is fast-moving, but good government necessarily moves slowly. Boris Johnson appeared to see all government as an extension of campaigning. He was famously "not a details man", not interested in the complexities or costs of implementing his generous promises. Officials across Whitehall have struggled to explain to ministers that changes in policy need the support of adequate budgets, negotiations with those who might want to block them, and the consent of those who have to implement them. Ministers in a hurry, looking for a favourable headline in the Daily Mail rather than a negotiation with the Treasury or the Local Government Association, don’t want to wait. Poor ministers blame their officials when they can’t achieve the results they demand in the short timescale they demand, as bad workmen blame their tools.

King Charles carefully pledged in his opening speech to parliament to "uphold constitutional government". Some commentators took this to be an implicit criticism of recent practices in Downing Street and in the last prime minister’s disregard for parliamentary scrutiny and judicial oversight. Some senior officials and outside commentators have wondered if we have been witnessing a structural crisis of single-party government, with both Conservatives and Labour torn by competing wings and distrust between leading personalities and groups which disrupt consistency in office. The 2010-2015 coalition had its own internal differences and tensions, but these were negotiated in formal meetings rather than plotted in parliamentary committee rooms. We have to hope that the next government, whether constructed from one party or more, will give a higher priority to stable government, with ministers staying in post longer enough to master their responsibilities and to gain the trust and respect of their teams of officials.

William Wallace (Lord Wallace of Saltaire) is Cabinet Office spokesman for the Liberal Democrats in the Lords

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