I experienced four reshuffles as a government minister and none of them were pleasant. In the aftermath of a reshuffle, there is always plenty of wrangling about portfolios before individual roles get settled. This is led by the Secretary of State with his/her Special Advisors, and based on whatever deal has been done about the priorities for the department between the PM and the Secretary of State.
The way that roles and responsibilities are assigned also depends on the extent to which the Secretary of State has had any control over the appointment of members of their team. For example, Jeremy Hunt’s long spell wrangling in No.10 earlier this week was most likely a combination of a struggle over policy and over people.
Incoming ministers are weak in this process; any existing ministers in the team will be busy grabbing portfolios they want to keep and passing on portfolios they don’t want to others. By now, roles and responsibilities have likely been settled (although not made public) but the wrangling could go on over the weekend. We’ll know for sure when all the Ministerial positions and roles are on the relevant Department’s website.
Once the negotiations are complete, each Minister is given a summary of their areas of responsibility (including bullet points on the policy, key challenges, and key stakeholders) which can include as many as sixty to seventy different topics.
Ministers’ weekend task is to read through all of this to get a quick helicopter understanding of the whole remit and to decide which areas are personal priorities.
Those who want to make a quick good first impression to the civil service or external stakeholders sometimes do a visit or event on their first weekend. If they’re new to office, this is an opportunity to be seen doing something publicly in their newly-promoted status. The first Sunday after I joined the Department of Health, I visited a mental health event to signal that this was a priority for me.
The biggest challenge for new Ministers or those taking up a new role is taking part in Oral Questions, picking up a Bill in progress or appearing in front of a select committee in the week following their appointment. Parliament is often quite forgiving to Ministers when this happens, but the honeymoon period doesn’t last long, and ambitious Ministers will want to perform well to demonstrate their competence.
Getting to know your private office team – Private Secretary, Assistant Private Secretaries, and Diary Secretary – and making sure they get to know you, is crucial in these early days. The 60-70 responsibilities are divided up between the private office team, with the highest priority areas being led by the Private Secretary.
On social care, any Cabinet Office civil servants seconded from the Department of Health into the Cabinet Office will most likely be returned to the department, as Hunt has clearly won the battle to lead this area.
Getting to know the lead civil servants for relevant policy areas comes next. The key relationship is with the Director-General, who will want to understand the personal priorities of the Minister, as well as offering their own views, and will try to steer ministers away from dangerous policy areas and towards rewarding ones. However, ministers should avoid taking up causes that predecessors rejected without first thoroughly working through the politics of the issue, even if it’s a personal favourite of the civil service. Ultimately, it’s the Minister who carries the can if it goes wrong.
Ministers’ time is also well spent speaking to their constituency parties in these early days. Broadly speaking, constituency parties tend to think an MP’s elevation is a good thing but this can’t be taken for granted. ‘Climbing the greasy pole’ is viewed by many party members with deep suspicion as inevitably you have to vote for things your local members disagree with. Ministers often spend time talking to local members about their new portfolios, to ensure that constituency activists are supportive.
Back in Parliament, the first meeting of the Ministerial team will vary according to the style of the Secretary of State. In one case my Secretary of State had a regular Monday morning with the Special Advisors, and then one-to-one meetings with Ministers as needed, usually with the Minister of State rank and not the Parliamentary Under Secretaries of State, and had very few whole Ministerial team meetings. With another we had quite regular away days as a team with and without the presence of the top civil servants.
For all the variation, one thing is certain: these first few weeks are crucial for the success of new ministers in finding their ‘political voice’ in their new role, establishing their policy priorities, securing their personal reputation for being competent and getting things done, and for being a ‘player’ to be reckoned with.