Rishi Sunak is repeating Gordon Brown’s mistakes
History has not yet accorded David Cameron the prestige and honour the ex-prime minister might have hoped for. Yet in one vital respect, he is head and shoulders above all his successors as well as his immediate predecessor. Cameron didn’t reshuffle his government very often. He kept the same chancellor for the entirety of his tenure at Number 10, as well as the same Home Secretary, and most of his cabinet appointees enjoyed the job for years rather than months.
In this Cameron made no secret of his intention to learn from his two predecessors’ mistakes. Even Tony Blair, particularly in his last years as prime minister, reshuffled too frequently, giving ministers far too little time to master their briefs before they were shoved on or out. But the example that Cameron wanted most to avoid following was that of Gordon Brown.
It is a fact of political life that leaders under pressure tend to want to shuffle the deck more often, which is why Brown’s short and unhappy time in Downing Street was riddled with reshuffle announcements in which he felt constrained to promote some figures, and demote others, without fully explaining what the changes actually brought to government, other than a few short-term headlines.
It is an example that Cameron’s most recent successor ought to want to avoid also. Few expected yesterday’s reshuffle or the splitting of the former Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Department and its replacement by two new departments and the merging of a third. We now have a Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, and a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. What’s left of the old business department has been merged with Kemi Badenoch’s Department for International Trade to become the Department for Business and Trade.
It all sounds like it’s intended to sound: as if there’s a dynamism at play in this government, that mandarins and ministers’ brains are whirring at speed, seeking solutions to the hefty challenges facing the population. Or it could sound like that number from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”: “We’re busy doing nothing, workin’ the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do…”
Reshuffles and reorganisations are necessary to the work of government, of course, but Sunak will have to work harder to avoid giving the impression that he’s following Brown’s playbook. Because Brown was heading for opposition and the country knew it – and if Brown himself didn’t know it, the rest of us certainly did. And when he conducted a panicked reshuffle in the immediate aftermath of the European Parliament elections in June 2009, no one was fooled into believing this was a thoughtful, considered element of his master-plan to win the next election. It was aimed entirely at shoring up the various Labour factions that had expressed unhappiness about Brown’s leadership style.
By that point, no number of reorganisations or repositioning of the deckchairs could dent the public’s determination to remove Brown at the first available opportunity. And Sunak’s position in the polls is worse than Brown’s was a year before the general election.
The prime minister now needs to do what various predecessors have singularly failed to do: prove that all this (expensive) reorganisation is not only worth it but is necessary to the production of exciting, innovative and, above all, effective remedies to what ails us as a country. Because the questions that demand answers today are exactly the same as the ones posed last week and last month: where are the new polices? Where is the defining mission of this government? Why should people who voted Conservative in 2019 stick with them next time round?
Sunak should take a leaf out of David Cameron’s playbook: enough with the reshuffles (unless forced upon him by circumstances beyond his control), and an end to reorganisations. Look around the Cabinet table today: these are the men and women who will be there when you return from the Palace having asked the King to dissolve parliament.
And by the time that day comes, you’d better hope that they have produced the answers you need to deliver for the country. Otherwise, new names, new headquarters and new letterheads for brand new departments will have very little political currency.