What’s The Point In A Cabinet Reshuffle?

The question everyone was asking on Twitter last night, explained...

Boris Johnson

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

Last night, a tweet went viral for asking a very important political question: what is the effing point in a cabinet reshuffle?! All week Boris Johnson has been moving ministers into different positions, a Liz Truss here, a Dominic Raab there, and not only are we meant to care about this, but we’re also meant to know what it all means.

But frankly, barely anyone does. At least, according to the reaction to journalist Sophie Gallagher’s tweet. With over 6,000 likes and near 700 retweets, it’s clear that many in the UK need more clarification on why our government choose to put people in charge of certain areas, only to move them onto a different one they’re unfamiliar with a year later.

‘Same I do not understand. I also don’t understand whyyyyy they would want to put someone who isn’t an expert in that thing, in charge of the thing,’ author Kate Leaver replied. ‘Or waste time waiting for the fishery person to learn about human kids?? It’s so weird.’

‘In some countries, e.g. Canada, the politician in charge of a department is actually highly qualified, and experienced, accordingly. What an idea,’ another followed, Jane Lunsford, added.

According to one follower, the confusion extends to civil servants too, who then have to work under ministers that do not have any experience in the field they’re no presiding over. ‘My father was in the civil service,’ one Twitter user named Cassandra said. ‘They dreaded new ministers coming in as they were all clueless. Rory Stewart gave a good interview on how frustrating it was as a minister to move from something you understood to an area you had no experience in. It’s madness.’

Cassandra was referring to a 2019 op-ed Rory Stewart wrote for The Guardian, where he stated the following:

'Our terms are absurdly short. I held five ministerial jobs in four years. Just as I was completing my 25-year environment plan, I was made Middle East minister. Just as I was trying to change our aid policy, I was made the Africa minister. Just as I was finishing my Africa strategy, I was moved to prisons. I promised to reduce violence in prisons in 12 months, and violence was just beginning to come down – when I was made secretary of state for international development. How can this be a serious way to run a country?’

So, it’s not just us non-politicians that are confused at the motivations of a cabinet reshuffle then. Where it some cases it might clear that someone needs removing from a position, say when an MP has done a terrible job of handling affairs in a particular area (in unrelated news, Dominic Raab was moved from foreign secretary to justice secretary) but for others, say moving an MP from transport to education, the public are left confused.

What is the point in a cabinet reshuffle?

So confused, there’s been multiple attempts to debate and explain why cabinet reshuffles take place by political experts and ministers alike. But for a simple, easy explanation, the Institute for Government has a five-point list on why prime ministers usually begin a reshuffle:

Cabinet and party management

The appointment and dismissal of ministers is an important part of a prime minister’s power. Through their patronage, they can reward loyalty and punish dissent, build alliances, and manage their party by making sure all the factions within it feel represented in government.

Performance management

Reshuffles are an opportunity to promote high-performing ministers by moving them into positions of greater responsibility, and to remove those not doing well in an attempt to improve departmental performance.

To signal policy shifts

Moving ministers around can be a way of indicating a government’s priorities. Adding new ministerial roles or changing which ministers can attend cabinet during a reshuffle is another way of doing this, as is making changes to the responsibilities of government departments.

To refresh

Reshuffles are a way to avoid seeming stale, and to introduce newer and younger MPs to the government. Refreshing the government through a reshuffle can be an attractive option when a government is unpopular – in May 2006, following disappointing local election results for Labour, Tony Blair held a wide-ranging reshuffle.

Because of events beyond their control

Prime ministers can be forced to reshuffle their government for unexpected reasons – for example, if a minister resigns, loses their seat in an election, or for any other reason can no longer serve in the government.

So, any clearer? Sounds to us like there’s still a lot to be debated on the efficacy of a cabinet reshuffle.

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