In the News

Johnson's cabinet reshuffle: context and research exercise

Mike McCartney

16th September 2021

You'd have to have been sleeping in a cave not to have heard about the game of musical chairs at the heart of government.

So what do w do with the info?

Well, a typical short answer question on the AQA specification on Cabinet appointments is to explain three factors a Prime Minister considers when appointing their Cabinet.

A simple approach is as follows:

  • Provide reason
  • Explain reason
  • Give as many examples as you can


The first factor would be loyalty. Why? Prime Ministers will seek ideological compatibility. This is for the obvious reason that it helps them drive forward their political agenda. A classic example is Thatcher sacking the wets and replacing them the dries. Blair tried to surround himself with New Labour acolytes. Brown elevated Ed Balls since he was an ideological soulmate. Johnson initially packed his Cabinet with Brexiteers initially, now Brexit is done, then perhaps this isn’t so important.

Notwithstanding the above, PMs have to seek some sort of balance. Why? I would say that Uk parties are coalitions in all but name. major had to perform a difficult balancing act by keeping Europhiles and Eurosceptics at the same table. Blair placated party stalwarts by including Old Labour colleagues like John Prescott. Theresa May presided over one of the most fractious Cabinets in history by incorporating Brexiteers and remainers.

Big hitters and rivals almost select themselves. Why? As the oft-quoted LBJ put, it’s better to have rivals inside the tent than out. I would contend that Wilson had the most talented Cabinet at his disposal of any premier with political heavyweights like Benn, Crosland, Callaghan, Healy and Castle. Major had to include Heseltine. Blair couldn’t exclude Brown. Likewise, May with Johnson.

That’s three.

I’d also add that…

More recently social composition has become an important consideration, and more students tend to include this as an example. Why? Former President Clinton said he sought to form a cabinet that “looked like America”, and the politics of representation has assumed a higher level of importance. So, if a Cabinet has the wrong optics, it can backfire on PMs. Major’s first Cabinet, for instance, had no female members, and consequently criticised as the “cabinet of chums”. When new Cabinets are announces, media outlets often give a breakdown of gender, ethnicity and so on.

For example, much has been of the fact that women now occupy two of the four traditional big offices of state. Research here, for example: Cabinet reshuffle: Liz Truss 'delighted' to be promoted to foreign secretary as two of four top jobs go to women | Politics News | Sky News

Another reason might be competence. Why? I think the reasons for this are pretty obvious. The incumbents of Number 10 want allies who have the capacity to run massive organisations with huge budgets, but they also need to be a safe pair of hands in the face of relentless media focus – especially in the 24-hour media age. Blair often called on John Reid to step in and clear up a departmental mess – such that he had seven jobs in as many years. And a focus on relative levels of ability has been the focus of Johnson’s latest reshuffle by large sections of the media, i.e. that gaffe prone and therefore unpopular ministers were given the boot. Research further via the Guardian column here: Boris Johnson lays groundwork for general election with ruthless reshuffle | Boris Johnson | The Guardian

Those following the edexcel route will want to consider the reshuffle in the context of the PM's power of patronage and the extent of PM power.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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