British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Update 3 - Dramatic Cabinet Reshuffle May 5th 2006

The biggest Cabinet reshuffle of the Blair premiership took place on May 5 th 2006. A reshuffle had been long planned, but it became more extensive and dramatic following separate but linked damaging stories involving three key ministers, Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and John Prescott, with demands for their resignations, following soon after earlier pressure on Ruth Kelly and Tessa Jowell. This crisis for the Blair government came at a very bad time, in the lead-up to extensive local government elections on Thursday May 4 th, widely seen as the first real test of the new leadership of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as well as the Blair government. In the event the results were bad for Labour, but not as dire as some had predicted. The timing of the Cabinet reshuffle suggests that most of the changes had been decided upon well before the local election results were declared.

Charles Clarke and the failure to deport convicted foreign prisoners

The most serious political storm broke over Charles Clarke at the Home Office, following revelations that over a thousand convicted foreign nationals had not been considered for deportation after they had served their sentences, but had been released back into the community. The story was particularly damaging for Labour and Blair in view of past commitments to be tough on crime and give the highest priority to security of the public. While Clarke had inherited long-standing problems at the Home Office, due to what were described as systemic failures (particularly in record keeping and coordination between services) he appeared to have done too little, too late, in responding to several clear warnings. Over a hundred criminals convicted of serious crimes (rape, murder, manslaughter) had been released without being considered for deportation and some had already re-offended. This provoked strong demands from opposition leaders and MPs that Clarke should resign. Clarke admitted responsibility but initially declined to resign, and seemed to have the Prime Minister’s support. Yet Blair decided that he had to be shifted from the Home Office. Although he was apparently offered other posts in the government he declined them and was effectively sacked. He had been seen as a strong man in the government and (previously) as a safe pair of hands. His enforced departure was a major blow to Blair.

Patricia Hewitt and the nurses

The Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt ran into serious political trouble more because of what she had said than anything she had done or not done. She had claimed that the NHS had had its best ever year. There may have been some statistical support for this claim, but it was crassly insensitive to make it against a background of stories of massive deficits for some hospital and Primary Care Trusts, involving cutbacks and job losses for NHS staff including nurses. She was barracked at the Royal College of Nurses annual conference. This was an appalling news story for a government that had made a record injection of new cash into the NHS. Yet it could be argued that Patricia Hewitt was only guilty of poor public relations rather than incompetence. In the extensive Cabinet reshuffle she kept her job.

John Prescott’s affair with his diary secretary

Dramatic revelations in the Daily Mirror of a two year relationship between the Deputy Prime Minister and a civil servant in his department (his diary secretary) further damaged the government. This was an old-fashioned sex scandal, of the kind that had brought down several government ministers (both Labour and Conservative) in the past. Some backbenchers and other commentators argued that Prescott had broken the ministerial code by having an affair with a civil servant, yet most leading politicians in all parties took the line that this was a private matter, and did not require his resignation. Prescott had however freely denounced the John Major government for sleaze, and the revelations did damage his personal credibility. It was also argued that it had undermined his authority within the government. His old nickname ‘two Jags’ was given a mocking up-dating. In the event, Prescott kept his job as Deputy Prime Minister (and the salary and other perks associated with it). The tabloids suggested he was being well rewarded for having ‘no jobs’.

Pressure on Ruth Kelly and Tessa Jowell

These stories followed soon after earlier pressure on two Cabinet ministers. Ruth Kelly, as Education Secretary, was forced to admit that a number of known sex-offenders had secured jobs in schools. There was strong pressure for her to resign, but she eventually responded robustly, introducing new checks. The storm appeared to have passed. However, she was moved in the reshuffle from education to the new department of communities and local government. Tessa Jowell was in trouble more because of her husband, David Mills’ business dealings than anything she had done herself. Mills had allegedly received £350,000 from the controversial Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi (who has since resigned following his narrow election defeat). This money, it was alleged, enabled Mills to pay off a mortgage loan that Tessa Jowell and Mills had signed for. Some of David Mills business dealings had not apparently been declared by Tessa Jowell, (as required under the ministerial code of conduct). Despite calls for her resignation, it appeared that she was substantially ignorant of her husband’s complicated business affairs. Her decision to separate from her husband took much of the heat off her. She stayed in post as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the reshuffle.

The Local Elections of May 4th, 2006

All these stories were particularly damaging in view of the impending local elections in May. The party of the government of the day often does badly in local elections. These are commonly treated by many voters and most commentators as a referendum on the standing of the parties nationally, rather than a verdict on the performance of local councils (see British Politics, chapter 17, especially page 316). It was already widely expected that Labour would do badly in this first major test following the general election victory of 2005, but the cumulative crisis of confidence led to predictions of a Labour melt-down.

In the event the results were bad for Labour, but short of disastrous. Labour lost over 300 seats and control of 17 councils. In the popular share of the vote they came third behind the Liberal Democrats, but on an overall turnout of 36% it appeared that many past Labour voters had stayed away rather than switched allegiance. The results gave some comfort to the Liberal Democrats, who largely consolidated past gains without making an spectacular breakthroughs, although new leader Menzies Campbell saw this as positive following the turmoil surrounding the party after Charles Kennedy’s forced resignation (see British Politics, p. 126). The elections gave more encouragement to the Conservatives, who reached the magic 40% barrier as a share of the total vote and won over 300 seats and gained control of eleven more councils (mostly in London and the south east). There were also gains for the Greens, and the British National Party, particularly in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, where they won eleven seats.

The impact of the local election results was somewhat overshadowed by the dramatic government reshuffle, which was perhaps partly Blair’s intention. Some Labour MPs and activists argued however that earlier changes might have improved the party’s chances in the local elections, in which voters’ concerns over Clarke and Prescott had reportedly damaged the party’s standing on the doorsteps.
The New Cabinet (following the changes announced on May 5th, 2006)

Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil service
Tony Blair

Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State
John Prescott

Chancellor of the Exchequer
Gordon Brown

Leader of the House of Commons and Lord Privy Seal
Jack Straw

Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Margaret Beckett

Secretary of State for Trade and Industry
Alastair Darling

Secretary of State for the Home Department
John Reid

Secretary of State for Health
Patricia Hewitt

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport
Tessa Jowell

Minister for the Cabinet Office and for Social Exclusion (and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster)
Hilary Armstrong

Secretary of State of Northern Ireland and Secretary of State for Wales
Peter Hain

Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council
Baroness Amos

Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor
Lord Falconer

Secretary of State for International Development
Hilary Benn

Secretary of State for Education and Skills
Alan Johnson

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and minister for Women
Ruth Kelly

Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
John Hutton

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
David Miliband

Secretary of State for Defence
Des Browne

Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for Scotland
Douglas Alexander

Minister without Portfolio
Hazel Blears

Chief Whip (Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury) Jacqui Smith

Chief Secretary to the Treasury
Stephen Timms

(This should be compared with the very different Cabinet listed in British Politics, p.190)

Analysis of the Cabinet Reshuffle

The changes went well beyond those ministers who had been endangered by recent damaging stories. Of these the biggest casualty was Charles Clarke, who refused other posts and returned to the back benches. John Prescott retained his title, although his former department was broken up. Ruth Kelly stayed in the Cabinet but her move to a new department was effectively a demotion. Tessa Jowell and Patricia Hewitt kept their jobs.

Of the other changes, the most dramatic was the promotion of Margaret Beckett to Foreign Secretary, the first woman ever to hold this senior post. Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary, became Leader of the House, a move widely seen as a demotion. John Reid, (a former Communist, but now a loyal Blairite) was promoted from defence to take over the Home Office. Other ministers were switched, Alastair Darling to Trade and Industry, Alan Johnson to education, David Miliband to DEFRA, Hilary Armstrong to the Cabinet Office, Des Browne to defence and Douglas Alexander to transport. Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith and Stephen Timms were promoted to the Cabinet. Geoff Hoon and Ian McCartney, formerly Cabinet ministers, became ministers outside the Cabinet at the Foreign Office. A record number of women (eight) figured as members of the reconstituted Cabinet. There were some significant promotions outside the Cabinet of which the most important for the future was the appointment of Ed Balls (long Brown’s key adviser before he won a seat in the Commons) as Economic Secretary to the Treasury.

The future of Tony Blair as Prime Minister

Much media speculation centred on the implications for Tony Blair as Prime Minister. The extent of the changes, more sweeping than anticipated, suggested that Blair was intending to stay in office for years rather than months. Such a radical reconstruction of his government would not make sense if he were intending to make way for Gordon Brown later in the year. It was suggested that Brown had not been closely consulted on the reshuffle (although some of his closest supporters were promoted). This is another indication that Blair was not envisaging an early hand-over to his presumed successor, but was planning to serve close to the ‘full term’ he had promised before the 2005 election.

Yet there were stories in the media of increased discontent on Labour’s backbenches, with pressure on Blair to name an earlier date for his departure, even from former loyalists, and stories of plots to oust him. Much will depend on the reaction of Gordon Brown. Any overt move on his part to put pressure on Blair for an early transfer of power might increase division within the party and damage its support in the country.