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How is the UK Government put together?

Prime Ministers create and then regularly recreate the make-up of their Government in what is called a ‘reshuffle’, which happens about every year.

The decision about Cabinet positions would be made personally by the PM but the key person for more junior positions, especially for changes, will be the Chief Whip.

PM’s and Leaders of the Opposition do not spend that much time in Parliament but the whips are always there, watching MPs performing in debate or on Select Committee and chatting to backbenchers in the tea rooms and bars . The Chief Whip and perhaps also the Prime Minister’s PPS will make suggestions.

The PM has to follow rules to balance factions in the party (every change Tony Blair made was seen in terms of whether Blairites or Brownites were up or down; every change in David Cameron’s whether they were eurosceptic or not), cover the various regions and to promote women and MPs from ethnic minority groups. The process takes place very quickly and, to people in No 10, often seems chaotic. In recent times Jeremy Corbyn was heavily criticised for what was viewed as a shambolic reshuffle when his took over a week and some members within that time accepted then resigned.

In one of the Wilson Governments there were two Labour MPs who were brothers and No 10 called one of them to see Wilson to be given a ministerial position. Wilson immediately saw that it was the wrong brother but, quick witted as always, he remembered that he could make an appointment to the Church Commissioners and the MP, a keen member of the Church, went away happy.

Some MPs now prefer to work on Select Committees and some to concentrate on their constituencies but most aspire to ministerial office.

The ministerial ladder is:-

Parliamentary Private Secretary who liaises for the Minister with Parliament (the Conservatives often make MPs junior whips to start them off)

Under Secretary with responsibility for policy areas

Minister of State – still a junior minister but covering a fairly major area such as Local Government or European policy

Cabinet Minister

The big three have traditionally been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary (though the Home Office was split it half under Labour to form a Ministry of Justice and so its power is less). If we take out Prime Ministers whose party had been a long time in opposition so that they could not have held a top post before, 13 of the 17 PMs since 1900 have previously been Chancellor or Foreign Secretary.

The Prime Minister

Bringing in Outsiders?

The Constitutional Convention is that Ministers have to be in Parliament and so there is a limited pool of talent for the Prime minister to call upon.

American Presidents can appoint anyone they like to run their Departments and French Presidents and Spanish Prime Ministers have often appointed people from outside the political elite.

PMs have occasionally looked to bring in outsiders and the main avenue is by appointment to the House of Lords (Mandelson and Adonis were appointed to the House of Lords by Brown, though neither was a political outsiders), but many MPs were unhappy that such senior ministers were not able to answer for their Departments in the House of Commons.

Although it might seem attractive to appoint people with outside expertise they have often not adjusted very well to the political rough and tumble in Parliament and in the Commons.

Neither Frank Cousins, former General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, in the Wilson Government, nor John Davies, former President of the Confederation of British Industry, in the Heath Government were seen as successful ministers.

Gordon Brown brought in outsiders to fill some junior posts. Called the Goats in Whitehall (after Brown’s idea of a Government of All the Talents) their experience was mixed. (Ben Young and Robert Hazell of the UCL Constitution Unit have a report on their experience, ‘Putting Goats Among the Wolves’ 2011)