There's a good story about Tony Blair from back in 2001, sourced from Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party, which sums up that particular government's attitude to job security within Cabinet. After the general election, Blair summoned the ministers of four key departments - the Home Office, health, transport and education. He told these ministers, namely David Blunkett, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris, that 'I really want this team to be the teams in these departments for the rest of this parliament.' Of course, none of the four were in charge at those departments at the end of that parliament. There were extenuating circumstances for all four - Blunkett and Byers became engulfed in scandal, Morris felt she was not up to the job, and Milburn was in all likelihood the victim of a Brownite putsch - but they're still symbolic of a government that felt the need to chop and change to a debilitating degree. In Blair's ten years at the top, there were four Home Secretaries, three Foreign Secretaries, five Education Secretaries, four Defence Secretaries (at a time when the country was fighting two wars) and four Health Secretaries. This high rate of turnover is made all the more amusing when you remember that the one man Blair really wanted to be rid of stayed in his post for the full ten years.
The argument for not moving government ministers around every twenty minutes is a powerful one. In ten years, John Reid held seven different Cabinet positions. How could that government therefore be expected to fashion a coherent, long-term narrative in any one of those seven departments? What does it do to the men and women who are expected to frequently walk into new departments, with different objectives, unfamiliar civil servants, diverse and confusing policy areas to wrestle with? You wouldn't get this sort of perpetual reshuffling in any other area of life. Business figures who move into government as advisers or peers lament at this curious fashion for constant refreshment - witness the comments of Lord Bilimoria on this issue during Radio 4′s Week in Westminster around a fortnight ago. New ministers help, on the day of a reshuffle, to make the government look a little more dynamic and give the sense of a new team rejoining battle for the months ahead. In practical terms, however, the whole thing seems like a total nightmare.
It seems David Cameron has learnt the lessons from the New Labour reshuffle-itis, if only by watching a couple of episodes of The Thick of It. He has only had one major reshuffle during his time in office, with his most senior ministers - William Hague (Foreign Office), Theresa May (Home Office) and George Osborne (Chancellor) - in place for the totality of the parliament, and seemingly immovable. The only major demotion - Andrew Lansley, from Health to Leader of the House - came after almost two years of relentless pressure over his performance and his department's goals for the NHS. It could have been expected that the government would buckle much sooner than they did. Cameron himself has said he doesn't like the idea of moving ministers around, and, by-and-large, he hasn't done so. You can suggest he's foolish to leave certain ministers in their posts. Tory activists might be happier if the Conservative-in-name-only Ken Clarke was gone, while Michael Gove and Philip Hammond's recent rebellious outbursts could have seen them in danger from a more trigger-happy PM. All things considered, though, it has to be seen as a tick in Cameron's leadership box that he allows his chosen ministers time to get to grips with their portfolios, and doesn't boot them out of Cabinet at the first opportunity. His ministers even spent long months and years shadowing the departments that they'd eventually run - Hague and Osborne, for example, have been Cameron's men on foreign and economic affairs ever since he became leader of the party.
This stability is a marked change from previous administrations and is good for Whitehall. It may well turn out to be Cameron's lasting legacy - an alteration in the way Cabinets are formed and run. Knowledgeable ministers, empowered by their longevity, able to bring expertise and initiate long-term projects. The one problem with the Cameroon way of appointing and retaining ministers is that in some cases it can be a shield for stubbornness and a mask for failure. Case in point? George Osborne.
The Chancellor is economic and political poison. He is frequently painted by Labour as the 'part-time Chancellor', with his role as the Tory election co-ordinator impeding his ministerial role. Tellingly, voters turn away from his policies when they discover they are Osborne's. And, most damning of all, he has failed - catastrophically - to do his job properly. Growth is nowhere, and has been for pretty much all of his tenure. As David Blanchflower at the New Statesman says, from the end of 2010 to present, the UK economy has lagged behind the United States, Germany and even newly-in-recession France. He has been given three years to resurrect the British economy, with personal responsibility for the austerity experiment, and he has not succeeded in doing so.
Getting rid of Osborne would be a major break from Cameron's stable government agenda. Yet surely the benefits outweigh the costs. It could be accompanied by a mea culpa over this government's misguided economic policy, and show the public that Cameron is able to sacrifice one of the key figures of his Bullingdon clique to save the British economy. It would help the government politically too, ridding them of the crown prince of nasty-party Conservatism. Cameron's anti-reshuffle position, in the case of Osborne, is merely a way of protecting a failed minister and a discredited policy choice. The Prime Minister will almost certainly not sack his Chancellor, but if he wishes to save his government then that is surely a better choice than leaving the dud at the Treasury and praying he can still, despite every indication to the contrary, lay a golden egg.