You might think that reshuffling ministers was all about getting the best people in the best jobs. But that, of course, is hardly ever the case with these eminently political events.
David Cameron has been something of a rarity amongst modern prime ministers, in not compulsively reshuffling his pack every few months. The few changes he has made so far have been forced upon him by events. His clear commitment – made at the outset of his prime ministerial tenure and reinforced by his steady practise – was to keep ministers in place in order to afford much needed stability in their departments, and to allow for experience to develop. Experience doesn’t always provide for ever more effective ministers of course – Andrew Lansley has shadowed or executed the health portfolio for nine years, but you would be hard put to suggest he had become a successful and flawless operator. Nevertheless, good governance is more likely than not to be served by the retention of ministers in their portfolios.
And there’s the rub. Because reshuffles are not about good governance. They are about appeasing the political pack. A pack that includes journalists and commentators every bit as much as the MPs themselves.
The Westminster media pack operates more than most journalists on rumour and gossip. Amidst the reams of political commentary available online and in print there is precious little that is genuinely fresh or revelatory or the product of hard investigative graft. Much of it compares more on the strength of its eloquence than the usefulness of its insight. Happily for journalists, reshuffles as events provide, for a brief shining moment, a glorious opportunity for the regurgitation of all sorts of variously informed and uninformed views that have been gleaned over drinks or at the meal table. Nearly anyone who has a basic grasp of politics can probably be wheeled on as an expert and not have to provide the remotest piece of expertise. These are such grand journalistic dump fests that you can almost hear the panting relief with which the forthcoming one is being greeted. Cameron has deprived the Westminster media of the great tradition of clueless speculation. At last, it’s back.
As for the MPs, a reshuffle represents an all too brief moment when they can once again dream that they might be asked to mount the governmental tree. Hopes can rise and dreams can live again for just a few days. Most will once again be disappointed but who would deny them these precious days of expectation?
So when David Cameron announces his reshuffle tomorrow, as far as the country at large is concerned he will have simply replaced one set of indistinguishable but passably able ministers for another. There may be an uncut diamond hidden somewhere amongst the newcomers, but on present form – and despite the fawning nonsense that has been heaped upon the all too uninteresting band of 2010 Tory MPs – it seems unlikely. Governance in reshuffled departments will just have to find its feet again, with little obvious gain to show.