The perils of the mid-term #reshuffle

In this blog I discuss the principal factors a party leader should consider when contemplating a mid-term reshuffle. Though I draw many of these from British political research, I also consider recent Irish expamples and refrain – largely – from engaging in too much speculation about who may be in or out next Saturday… or next week when the junior ministries are announced. 

Will it be “as you were” with some folks just moving steps rather than entering/exiting?

Aware of Paddy Ashdown’s background as both a Royal Marine and a Special Boat Service officer, Charles Kennedy observed wryly to the House of Commons in Oct 1998 that Ashdown was: “the only party leader who’s a trained killer. Although, to be fair, Mrs Thatcher was self-taught.”

Not that the Iron Lady saw it that way. Speaking about her post-election reshuffle options in a BBC interview on the day after her 1983 election win, she resisted Sir Robin Day’s invitation to call herself a good (political) butcher. Instead, she disagreed with Herbert Asquith’s claim that a good Prime Minister must be a good butcher, before adding that they did need to know how to carve the joint. A distinction without a difference?

Three decades later, in a 2013 written submission to the House of Commons’ Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, Thatcher’s successor as Prime Minister, Sir John Major, avoided such visceral references, choosing to list the positive objectives he felt should guide a party leader when reshuffling the pack mid-term. He wrote:

There were a number of objectives in any reshuffle.

The first was to promote able Members to replace Ministers who were under performing.

[The second] I was also keen to bring a regional and political balance to the Government, in order to fairly reflect opinion within Parliament.

A third objective was to bring on young Members, and give them a breadth of experience, if I judged that they were likely to make it to the Cabinet.

Later in his submission, Major warned: Reshuffles should be driven by necessity, not by public or political pressure.

The Committee interpreted “necessity” as meaning resignations, illnesses, and deaths. They accepted Major’s words of caution, adding that there was an emerging political expectation of a reshuffle every two years, coinciding (usually) with the mid-point of a government’s term. They also noted that there had only been six mid-term reshuffles in Germany between 1949 and 2006.

The committee recommended that:

“…that there should always be a good reason for a reshuffle. No reshuffle should ever take place simply because it is assumed that there should be one. Reshuffles have become a habit in the UK and altering this will require a change of mindset.”

If you are wondering why my references thus far have been to UK examples, rather than Irish ones – fear not, I will get to those very shortly. I cite the material above as (a) the 2013 committee report is a valuable source that draws together a lot of important material and (b). this is a discussion about the main considerations involved when contemplating a mid-term reshuffle, rather than a speculative piece about who may be in or out next Saturday.

So, the focus here is on the mid-term reshuffle, as opposed to the post-election variety, where a sitting government is returned, and the victorious Taoiseach must decide who to keep, or drop.

The upcoming reshuffle meets the “mid-point” and “necessity” tests. Actually given the way the June 2020 Programme for Government (PfG) was framed, they are one and the same thing.

In the Functioning of Government section of the PfG, the three parties agreed that

The Leader of Fianna Fáil will hold the office of An Taoiseach… until December 15th, 2022, on which date he will offer his resignation to the President and all Parties and TDs supporting the Government will support the nomination of the Leader of the Fine Gael Party.

Membership of Government and the roles of ministers will be continued save where agreed in advance by Party Leaders.

Each Party acknowledges that the leadership and ministerial nominations of their respective parties is entirely a matter for the Party concerned.

As I observed in an article at the time of the PfG negotiations, the arrangement makes no mention of the Finance ministry or the re-allocation of Cabinet portfolios necessitated by the current Tánaiste leaving his current one, Enterprise, Trade and Employment on becoming Taoiseach.

If you take the wording of second paragraph (above) then you must assume that the changes would be minimal: roles of ministers will be continued save where agreed in advance. Thus, the soon to be ex Taoiseach, Micheál Martin takes on Varadkar’s former gig and Varadkar takes his… meanwhile Donohoe and McGrath trade their half departments (Finance and Public Expenditure being together in one single department pre-2011).

Given that everyone has known the date and scope of this mid-term reshuffle from the moment the government was formed, it is no exaggeration to say that no other reshuffle in modern political history has had more thought and planning put into it, than this one.

Yet, if the advance briefings and spin coming from the two main parties is to be believed, all this advance planning and forethought may result in a new Cabinet that looks remarkably like the old Cabinet. A bit like having a second wedding but just moving the in-laws around in the wedding pics.

The same spin suggests that Micheál Martin is in no hurry to return to the Enterprise and Jobs portfolio he held from 2004 to 2008, preferring instead to discommode his constituency colleague Simon Coveney and return to the Iveagh House office he occupied from 2008 until resigning after calling on Fianna Fáil to change leader.

The leaves the issue of whether Martin will also take on Coveney’s Defence portfolio. This is an important juncture for Defence with the implementation of High Level Action plan, arising from the Commission on the Defence Forces, still at its early stages.

Some are hinting that Martin will also become Defence Minister, but that the outgoing Government Chief Whip Jack Chambers may be slotted in as a Defence super junior minister. Chambers is undoubtedly well qualified for the role, having been a highly effective opposition spokesperson on Defence – but this barely sidewards move to stay longer in Martin’s shadow would be seen as a less than fair reward for Fianna Fáil’s youngest minister.  

Just over a week ago the Dáil’s youngest T.D., Fianna Fáil’s James O’Connor told the Irish Mirror that he hoped to see Jack Chambers promoted to Cabinet, saying:

“I think it is very, very important that Fianna Fáil sends a signal that we’re interested in young people… Jack is our youngest [junior] minister and I think it would be nice to see him given an opportunity to be a Cabinet Minister.”

It is a fair point. But you could substitute Chamber’s name with two or three others, and the point would be equally valid.

So, assuming Martin replaces Coveney, Coveney replaces Varadkar, and McGrath and Donohoe replace each other, can that really be the sum total of change in this planned and necessary reshuffle?

Would these minimal changes pass Major’s three objectives test?

Let’s look at the last one: bringing on young members. If the changes are confined to the five named above, then only McGrath could be counted as “young,” in solely political terms. All the others have government service that’s in double digits.

  • Martin has served over 13 years in office and 33 years as a TD
  • Varadkar has served almost 12 years in office and 15 years as a TD
  • Coveney has served almost 12 years in office and 21 years as a TD, plus 3 as an MEP
  • Donohoe has served almost 9 years in office and 11 years as a TD, plus 4 as a Senator
  • Only McGrath could be seen a newbie with just over 2½ years as a minister, though he has been in the Dáil for 15 years.

In her 1983 Robin Day interview, Mrs Thatcher also discussed the need to bring in fresh faces making the very strong argument that a Prime Minister needed to keep movement in politics in order to give people something to go for.   

This even goes beyond Major’s replacing underperforming ministers objective. There are few, if any, objective tests for determining whether a minister is underperforming.

The fact that an individual minister is polling badly is not proof that they are underperforming, especially at a midpoint in a government cycle. Their short-term unpopularity may be a function of their laying the groundwork for achievements that will attract approval before the next election… hopefully.

However, can that be said to be true when one of the government party’s support is declining steadily, and that party’s rationale for entering government was to recover the support it so dramatically lost during the last election?

Yes, government parties can expect to see low poll ratings at the mid-point of a government term, but can a party leader in a multi-party coalition afford to be so phlegmatic when his party’s support is flatlining but the support for another government party is rising… especially when that other party’s leader is about to become Taoiseach?

Is this really the time for declaring steady as she goes across the senior ministerial ranks and (yet again) telling new and younger talent on the back benches that their time has not yet come?

To have a government marching to the beat of “continuity is good” when so many voters are saying, “it is time for change” is undoubtedly a brave strategy. Time will tell if it is a foolhardy one.

One last point, but it is an important one. Though not mentioned by Houser of Commons committee, there is another test that should feature in a mid-term reshuffle, namely if ministers are committing to contest the next general election remain.

In 2004 Fianna Fail’s Minister Joe Walsh indicated that he would stand aside as a Minister in the upcoming reshuffle and retire from the Dáil at the next election. While in 2000, Fianna Fáil junior minister Chris Flood did likewise.

In remarks to a private Fine Gael meeting …which naturally, and unsurprisingly, found their way into print… Leo Varadkar told his TDs that he expects them to commit to contesting the next general election before he makes any appointments in the upcoming reshuffle.

Without sounding too pompous about it, this goes to the heart of democratic accountability. Those who have exercised ministerial authority should be accountable at the next election. The checks and balances inherent to our system of government are not well served when the elected cohort either have an eye to their next opportunity, or feel they no longer need to heed the views of those they serve.

It is a fair test for anyone seeking appointment or re-appointment as a cabinet minister, or Minister of State… or, even higher

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