Standing in the way of control
Last week, the authors of these notes stated that, ‘the Government isn’t working’. Unexpectedly, Rishi Sunak has today announced that he agrees.
Rather than simply reshuffle his ministers, the Prime Minister has decided on a major reorganisation of Whitehall departments. A new Ministry for Science! International Trade merged with Business! Back to the future with a carved-out Department for Energy! On that last one, it might actually be an interesting and important step towards a refreshed Conservative concern for energy security, something that hasn’t really been seen since the days of Nigel Lawson.
Overall, the shake-up is designed to ‘deliver better on the Government’s priorities’ and also, more cynically, to ensure that this particular shuffling of the deck doesn’t create any real losers or any new enemies.
Why? Well, for one, the Prime Minister can’t afford any fresh bad feeling in his party. As the surprisingly warm support from a small (but by no means insignificant) coterie of Tory MPs for the return of Liz Truss proved this week, Sunak is in a weak position. He’s not going to be deposed any time soon (they’re not that mad), but he doesn’t have the grip on his party that a new PM usually enjoys. Looming defeat has become a self-reinforcing psychological flaw for the Tory backbenches. Most of them see no avenue to personal advancement (or simply don’t want to be a junior minister at the fag end of a failing Government) and no-one is scared of him. A threat of deselection means vanishingly little if you see your precarious majority receding like the tide anyway.
Will moving thousands of civil servants between offices make any difference to the fundamentals of government effectiveness? Maybe. It’s not impossible. But as previous iterations of this plaque-changing exercise have demonstrated (Brown’s similarly wide-ranging Whitehall rejig springs to mind), whilst structure might finesse delivery, it’s unlikely to save a flailing administration. Commissioning a whole load of new logos and signage might be an interesting, if niche, industrial strategy but it’s unlikely to turn the heads of anyone outside SW1.
Rishi Sunak is aiming to create the impression of power without actually exercising it in the traditional sense - as in, making decisions that move the needle. He might succeed, superficially, within the Westminster bubble. For a bit. But three new government departments do not effective government make, and this sort of fiddling simply doesn’t show up for the ordinary punter. The fact that this reshuffle forges no real new policy ground and seeks to please all tells us more than the reshuffle itself. He is Prime Minister. But he has not taken back control today; it’s looking doubtful that he ever will.