Regular readers of British news will know that analysing cabinet formation is a difficult business. Tony Blair's last cabinet involved a hastily found compromise candidate being made Foreign Secretary to which her response was an expletive- and also involved sacking a Home Secretary who wanted to keep his job but whom the Prime Minister wanted to move in the cabinet. I would caution readers not to take the list of ministers that Gordon Brown has produced too seriously though- but having said that there are some major gainers- Alistair Darling replaces Brown at No 11, David Milliband gets the Foreign Office, Jacqui Smith the Home Office and other people like Ed Balls, Ed Milliband, Douglas Alexander and John Denham join the cabinet. So what should we make of it all?
First things first- for those readers of Bits who haven't heard the news- the cabinet list is provided here
. There are some major changes which have gone on and its worth separating them- departmental changes in a way suggest more than ministerial changes but they are harder to track because we don't yet have a list of junior ministers.
Departmentally the big news is the split in the department of Education- John Denham who resigned over the Iraq war has got a new department, of innovation, skills and universities- reflecting perhaps the way that education policy has developed under Labour. Mr Brown perhaps is suggesting via this that the use of universities is to develop skills and enterprise and not to provide a kind of liberal education. Universities are definitely here being made subordinate to their economic purpose- a choice with which I disagree but which might be indicated by Mr Brown's choice of departmental construction.
Another interesting departmental shift sees Tessa Jowell being sent to run the Olympics but not from the cabinet whilst James Purnell gets the Culture Media and Sport empire. Again Brown may be indicating something about the Olympics that he sees that role as split from the normal functions of government- this change may result in the Olympics being treated as a one off and not funded through the department directly- something that museums and art galleries will be pleased about. The other major departmental change has been to split the Home Office- Jack Straw taking justice in a long trailed move- in a sense though that was prepared under Tony Blair so doesn't reflect Mr Brown's hand as much.
Insofar as personnell goes there are a couple of expected promotions for young talents like Mr Purnell. Ruth Kelly survives at Transport largely because there are so few women. Hazel Blears has kept her seat at the table for the same reason- though to be honest Brown is probably trying to demonstrate inclusivity at the same time for the Blairites. Leading Brown supporters like Douglas Alexander have received promotion- though some like Nick Brown as yet have not. Some will surely be waiting their chance in the next reshuffle- Yvette Cooper for example must be due a rise and others like Des Browne- the Defence and Scottish Secretary must be releived they survived.
There are appointments which also look to take on the Tory party at the next election- Hillary Benn is one of Labour's more effective performers so he goes to take the environment brief- one which will allow him to deploy his firepower at David Cameron directly. Other ministers- Douglas Alexander at International Development will raise the profiles of their departments. Ed Balls has been sent as a rising star both politically and intellectually to tackle education- and Alan Johnson as one of the cabinet's most assured public performers will seek to quiet the public's fears about health. Perhaps the supreme appointment of this type is Alistair Darling- mr competent who goes to the Treasury and has a long record of sorting out problems. Geoff Hoon also as Chief Whip ought to be able to control the Commons.
Mr Brown sold himself very much upon his ability to coax members from other parties into the cabinet- he has not succeeded. Having said that he has appointed the old Tory MP (who defected under John Major) Shaun Woodward to be the new Northern Ireland Secretary- a job whose importance is falling back but it is definitely a big step forwards for Woodward. Rumours are flying around about Mr Brown bringing in businessmen to advise the government- Terry Leahy, Alan Sugar and others are being mentioned- personally again this strikes me as a retrograde step- to run a business doesn't mean that you can run a government and it may warp policy towards the needs of those who run large conglomerates instead of small operations.
In truth its very hard to ascertain what exactly will happen under a Brown premiership but the new cabinet gives it an interesting flavour- Mr Brown has changed both departments and ministers in such a way as to denote a new direction- what direction who knows yet- some of the appointments are worrying but speculation is nothing without the results for good or ill to back it up and so I personally will withhold judgement until we see what happens.