The era of the short-term Minister?
We are now at a time when Ministers are staying in their roles for ever shorter periods. How should Public Affairs professionals prepare for the era of the short-term Minister?
Max Sugarman, CIPR Public Affairs Group Chair
The appointment of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister means we are now approaching another reshuffle, the fourth this year.
Given the political turbulence over 2022, it’s understandable why Ministers are moving more. With three Prime Ministers in one year, it would be odd not to see roles changing. Yet, while this year is unusual, it is by no means an outlier. Ministerial terms have been getting shorter, particularly due to the fallout from Brexit.
For example, Jeremy Hunt is now the fourth Chancellor since 2016. Compared to the 19-year period between 1997 and 2016, the role only changed hands five times. We’ve had six Home Secretaries in the past six years, compared to just one – Theresa May – in the six years before that.
In fact, many junior Ministerial roles – which although called ‘junior’, still manage important briefs – have seen even more volatility than Cabinet roles. Some have served a few months before moving on. And sometimes, after the Cabinet is reshuffled, these junior roles get left unfilled for weeks whilst the Government gets into gear.
We are clearly in ‘the era of the Short-Term Minister’. The game of Ministerial musical chairs is getting quicker and quicker. Promotions and sackings are happening with increasing regularity.
For the industries these Ministers manage, it can be discombobulating. A Minister arrives into the Department, sets out their priorities for the role, meets the key stakeholders and industry leaders, before – whoosh – they are whisked to another role. Some industries have begun to lament the lack of time Ministers are in place; last year, the construction sector complained that the average life of their Minister since 2016 was just seven months. You’ll see several similar concerns raised across a range of other industries.
This volatility is not good for policy-making. Even minor Ministerial decisions have far-reaching impacts on their respective sectors. Investment decisions and business plans are made on the back of them. Businesses can lose trust and confidence in the decisions Government is making. They may think they will be reversed when a new Minister comes in. They may be waiting for a Minister to have enough time to get to grips with their brief to make a key decision. Ultimately, this can mean delay and uncertainty. And in such difficult economic times, this can hold back investment.
So how should Public Affairs Professionals respond to these new turbulent times? Here are some key tips:
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- Make sure you take a flexible approach. There is not much you can do to stop the ever-increasing rate of reshuffles, but you can make sure your organisation is prepared for whoever enters the new role. Make sure your message is able to adapt to a change in focus and have a plan ready for whoever takes up the new role.
- Don’t wait. Given the Ministerial life cycle is shorter than ever, you will have less time to get your message across. Ministers will need to get up to speed quickly, so be ready to engage.
- Don’t forget Parliament or the Civil Service. Whilst Ministers might be changing, MPs and Peers will have greater longevity. A good support base in Parliament can help ensure issues are raised with the Government speedily. Similarly, ensuring relevant civil servants are briefed will mean they can be ready with the key points when a Minister joins their department.
- Expand your approach. With Ministers changing roles, it will be more important than ever that you don’t just focus on one department. Make sure a wide range of policymakers, across the Government, know about you and your key issues.
- Keep an eye on Ministerial responsibilities. Reshuffles often see structural changes across a Department. You can't always expect roles to be filled like-for-like, so make sure you're on top of any changes.