Why sacking incompetent ministers like Gavin Williamson isn't always a good idea

Cabinet ministers now spend less time in their posts than Premier League managers; this rate of churn is damaging to government.

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The average tenure of a UK cabinet minister is the lowest it has been for more than 50 years, according to new analysis by the New Statesman, which shows that for the first time, Premier League football managers have, on average, more experience in their roles than those at the most senior levels of government. 

Ministers who left their jobs during the 2010s – for whatever reason – had spent an average of 757 days (2.1 years) in their positions. This is the lowest average for any full postwar decade, and a more than 15 per cent drop from the previous decade.

The managers that are set to lead teams into the new English Premier League season next month have been in their roles for an average of 826 days at the time of writing.

And while players and seasons vary, managing a football team remains largely the same job. The same cannot be said for running a government department, a role in which deep expertise in a specific subject such as healthcare, energy or transport is vital.

 

The resignations from Theresa May's cabinet during the most febrile period of the Brexit negotiations account for a large part of this recent fall in average time in post. The average tenure of a May minister was just 501 days, or 1.4 years.

This is the lowest average since Alec Douglas-Home in the 1960s, although the data shows the lowest postwar average after excluding prime ministers for whom we have less than five appointments in our data.

Although it’s too soon to judge how long Boris Johnson’s appointments will stay in their roles, he is off to a poor start. Six of his initial appointments have either resigned or were moved on in his reshuffle after the 2019 general election.

These figures could be seen simply as an interesting reflection of a period in Westminster, and the personalities and allegiances of different prime ministers. But they also show that the wider issue of experience and stability at the top of government is only getting worse.

 

The Institute for Government (IfG) think tank has also compiled data on ministerial churn, which it describes as a “major weakness of the British system of government.”

Our analysis also shows that while politicians in the Great Offices of State tend to stay in post longer than those in other roles, the departments of Justice, Defence, Work & Pensions and Culture, Media & Sport all had average tenures of less than two years in the 2010s.

Had Gavin Williamson lost his job as the Education Secretary in the wake of the past fortnight’s GCSE and A-level results debacle, his replacement would have been the sixth person to lead the Department for Education since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

Setting aside the competence of the current Education Secretary, it could be argued that, with just over a year in his department – and no prior membership of any committee or group related to education – his culpability in the fiasco is partly mitigated, or at least explained, by a lack of experience. While many have argued that his position has become untenable, failure is instructive. Getting rid of Williamson might well mean that somebody with even less experience would take over the role.

 

New ministers are given little to no formal training in running the department for which they are responsible. The former Tory leadership candidate, Rory Stewart, wrote in the Guardian earlier this year that ministerial terms are "absurdly short. I held five ministerial jobs in four years. Just as I was completing my 25-year environment plan, I was made a Middle East minister. Just as I was trying to change our aid policy in Syria, I was made the Africa minister. Just as I was finishing my Africa strategy, I was moved to prisons. I promised to reduce violence in prisons in 12 months, and violence was just beginning to come down – when I was made Secretary of State for International Development. How can this be a serious way to run a country?”

International comparisons, highlighted by the IfG, show that the UK is in the middle of the pack when it comes to the length of time served by its ministers. In Germany, ministers remain in post for an average of almost three years, while the average in Italy is less than 18 months.

In the US, while there is a higher rate of churn, the cabinet can be chosen from beyond the legislature – so, for example, someone with a decade of experience running public schools can be appointed secretary of education. Because British ministers have to be MPs or members of the House of Lords, they need much longer to get to grips with a brief that may be entirely new to them. The stability that is held up as an argument for maintaining a first-past-the-post electoral system should make this possible, but in practice this is not the case. In fact, the trend is in the opposite direction.

Patrick Scott is the data projects editor for the New Statesman Media Group

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