The role of Prime Minister is not the only senior job in government to have changed hands frequently in recent months, as Rishi Sunak replaced Liz Truss this week, who herself only replaced Boris Johnson just over a month ago.
But the turnover in senior roles could have major consequences for the government’s ability to deliver on key policies, as civil servants struggle to bring new ministers up to speed on their briefs and keep up with the rapidly-changing demands of different administrations.
A senior figure in a civil servants’ union highlighted the “recent turmoil,” in government and said that the civil service has been working to ensure that “the country keeps running amidst the current chopping and changing of ministers”.
Five Education secretaries, four Chancellors and three Home Secretaries
After being appointed yesterday by Sunak Gillian Keegan becomes the fifth education secretary since July. This means that there have been the same number of education secretaries in the last six months as there were in the previous five years.
Since the wave of resignations in early July which triggered Johnson’s announcement that he would step down as Prime Minister, only Ben Wallace and Alister Jack have remained in their roles, as Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State at the Scotland Office, respectively.
Alok Sharma has retained his role as the minister for Cop26 throughout this period, although he will no longer attend cabinet under Sunak.
While Jeremy Hunt has remained in place under Sunak after replacing Truss’ first pick as Chancellor earlier this month, he is still the fourth person to hold what is considered to be the second-most important cabinet role since July.
Speaking to NationalWorld recently, a government source said they’d been held up on a project which required Treasury sign-off only for the Chancellor to then be sacked, delaying the project even further.
Jonathan Webb, senior research fellow at IPPR North, told NationalWorld that ministerial churn has a serious impact on the government’s ability to develop solutions and deliver policy.
He said: “Even if ministers aren’t experts when they go into a role they are generally able to build up an expertise quite quickly, thanks to the support of the civil service. But you lose that every time a minister comes in; you’re resetting that.”
Grant Shapps, the new secretary of state at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, will be the third person to hold that position since July, as will Mel Stride at the Department of Work and Pensions, Therese Coffey at Defra, Mark Harper at the Department for Transport and David TC Davies at the Wales Office.
Commenting in general about ministerial churn earlier this year, Norman Baker, a former minister and director of external affairs at Campaign for Better Transport, said that constant government reshuffling means a lack of expertise within departments.
“You don’t end up with people who know what they’re talking about,” he said.
Ministerial churn means ‘lost time’ in government
The ministers in charge of the Home Office; the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; and the Department for Health and Social Care have all changed four times in as many months, although in each case Sunak has now appointed a minister of state who either resigned or was sacked in recent months.
Suella Braverman was forced to resign as Home Secretary after just 43 days over a breach of the ministerial code, but had now been reappointed to replace Grant Shapps who had the job for just six days.
Michael Gove was sacked from DLUHC by Boris Johnson but will return to the role under Sunak, while Steve Barclay stepped in as health secretary following the resignation of Sajid Javid in July, but only remained in the role for around two months, before he was replaced when Liz Truss became Prime Minister.
NationalWorld has heard from government sources across a number of key departments in recent weeks about the impact of upheaval and ministerial churn on working conditions and morale for civil servants.
One source said their department was struggling to recruit people to work on new initiatives and reported a “backlog of decisions from before the Conservative leadership election”. Another source told NationalWorld that their department had been “unable to do any work in the last two weeks”.
Speaking to NationalWorld, FDA Assistant General Secretary Amy Leversidge highlighted “all the recent turmoil,” in government and said that the civil service has been working to ensure that “the country keeps running amidst the current chopping and changing of ministers”.
Leversidge said the raft of reshuffles will necessitate more churn, creating issues as new ministers get to grips with their departments.
She said: “This is against the backdrop of uncertainty around jobs, with the announcement of cutting 91,000 civil servants looming in the background, real terms pay cuts and the uncertainty of the upcoming Treasury announcements on public spending.”