Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Round-table tradition

Read the published diaries of almost any former MP - Alan Clark, Gyles Brandreth, Chris Mullin - and amongst the common themes is one 'absolute' which links through every political era and will doubtlessly do so for the foreseeable. If "reform" means anything to the Coalition government, the annual parlour game which distracts MPs, obsesses journalists and distracts even the most ardent policy-wonk from the finer points of the issue at hand. It is, but of course, the Cabinet Reshuffle, the one element of British political life which shared with football, and the one tradition no government has ever considered could be worth putting to bed.

Prior to the election - and reiterated last year both Cameron and Clegg have tried to distance the Government from the annual charade. If only anyone would believe them. It's not necessarily their faults - football fans know that the merry-go-round will one day stop turning, and one of the chosen few will be back in a job not long before or after Christmas.

Only in the realm of politics could there be similar employment attitudes to the chairman of football plcs. The MPs I mentioned above cannot avoid writing - and enjoying - the sport of promotion and demotion, the rise and fall of backbench stars or Cabinet flops. Clark relished every chance to insult those who passed him on their way up the ladder or to scoff when they fell back to earth. Brandreth recalls the need to stuff the Ministerial red box of Stephen Dorrell (newly promoted at the Department for National Heritage as it then was) with videos of British film classics as he was in a position for which he had no understanding. Chris Mullin regularly recalls how ministers across Africa and Europe could not make strong relationships with British counterparts because, amongst other things, the 13 years of Labour rule saw over 30 different MPs given the jobs of Minister for Europe, or Minister for Africa.

The Reshuffle is enjoyed and endured as a consequence of the Old Boys Club attitude within Westminster. The most conscientious constituency representative becomes enslaved to the system - will the call from Downing Street come this year? Next?

Who would care about the Whitenslade Scouts Summer Fayre when there's ministerial responsibility just around the corner? Mullin admits that even the most lowly promotion is grasped with both hands. He also writes very well about how sharp and short the experience can be; the Minister who has spent a year building relationships and strong reputations can be out the door in the morning to be replaced by someone who has to start the whole thing from scratch.

Reshuffles are outdated, outmoded, and clearly straight out of the Great British political traditions dressing up box. They are very expensive - Department names are changed and re-named at whim ("Department for Children, Families and Schools" lasted just over 3 years before returning to "Department for Education". One has to ask - why did it have to change at all?). Ministers suddenly become experts in their new field (and did we have any faith in Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary? Really?).

Cameron, as ultimate hirer-and-firer, should take a lead from the rest of Europe on this (and for that matter, the US, where such pack-shuffling is almost unheard of). To allow Ministers and Secretaries of State to get on with their jobs, the constant ticking clocks must have their batteries removed. Cameron has made some unfortunate ministerial choices, but whilst in other jobs (especially in business) time is allowed for improvement, the Westminster attitude leaves sharpened knives at the door. Policies which are not delivering need focus and concentration. The delivery of policy is stifled if the carousel is whirred into action by pressure from every lobby hack with impatience and deadlines on their mind.

To show the wider public that the Coalition really does understand "new politics", Cameron should avoid anything remotely close to a full-scale Reshuffle until at least next year. Another glut of traditionalists doubtlessly feel angered, another reem of right-wing Tories will huff and howl, though it's all for the good. Few people in the real world see as much pointless, expensive, repetitious, duplicating japery as members of parliament. It infects their brains, alters their thinking. Any MP who knows their thing will tell you the same - and it has ultimately damaged our political culture.

One could argue that the only way to fix the Reshuffle bug is a wholesale revolution within our political system, cutting the link between constituency MP and Ministerial job (as happens in so many parliamentary republics), increasing the number of appointed Ministers who are not accountable to voters. Others could argue that no Reshuffle should happen at all between elections, giving voters the right to compare like-for-like over a parliaments life-time.

Some traditions are hard to break. The dinosaurs who want to keep First-past-the-Post (because, you know, an MP needs only 33% of the vote in their constituency to become Foreign Secretary) are the same who lap up the "fun" of the Reshuffle and all it represents. Football is rightly criticised for giving second, third, and forty-eighth chances to the same old dwindling number of ex-managers. Politics really should have the same fingers pointed in its direction. Cameron should lead by example and leave the parlour games for another year.