shaking up the House

In the light of whatever Chris Huhne does/has done to him next, the whiff of ‘reshuffle’ is in the air. Politicos like their reshuffles – it’s a day of intrigue and cunning, and often on a wing and prayer desperation. 3D Chess it ain’t.

Read any diary or memoir from those at the heart of Government – or those who wish they were – and the dreaded reshuffle period would lay behind their words as a ghost, a constant narrative waiting beneath the surface. Alan Clark would spend days plotting his move across the board – who is up, who was down, who did “The Lady” prefer to keep close? He would write about the sharks scenting the first drops of blood in the water – exactly, I presume, what is happening now around the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Reshuffles are bewildering for most observers outside Britain. The soap opera which is the Westminster bubble goes as cuckoo-bananas as a shed load of Crossroads scriptwriters, with all the traditional trappings of news gathering thrown into one overflowing pot of nonsense. Doorstepping ministers, zoomed in close-ups of a ministerial car driving along Downing Street, the BBC reporter within the Houses of Parliament talking about “sources close”, which can often mean “what I’ve just been told directly” as much as it can mean “what Twitter is currently assured is happening.”

The ups and downs of Ministers and Secretaries of State is a world away from other businesses. It’s when politics becomes more ‘sport’ than ‘statesman’, with each self-taught expert in a specific field suddenly whisked off to another patch where they know nothing. Stephen Dorrell was sent to the newly created Department for National Heritage with no knowledge of modern British cinema – Gyles Brandreth writes in his diary how the new SoS was given a video of ‘Four Weddings and Funeral’ in his ministerial red box. Yes, the “Zeitgeist Tape” really does exist.

Chris Mullins writes in his diaries of the Blair years how his time in the lowly foothills of Government was markedly annoying by the very nature of the merry-go-round process of reshuffling. Just as one Minister for Africa builds up a list of contacts, off he goes somewhere else, sometimes sideways, rarely up, often straight out.

The only comparable business is football management, less so in modern times though it’s still there. Familiar names, similar gossip behind the scenes, who is up and who is unfavoured, who shall spend more time playing golf? There is an understandable amount of exhaustion at the same-old same-old around football managers and the merry-go-round of sackings and hirings. It’s a game within a game, with backs recently stabbed quickly patted, and often by the same person. Politics would be richer for giving Ministers a full 5 years to understand their jobs – but it would be far less interesting for the rest of us. It’s a game we’re addicted to; we’re all a little bit like the sharks in the water.