Tavish Scott: Reshuffle all about playing the game

Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tavish Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
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One of the few certainties about a government reshuffle is the prime minister, or first minister, annoys more people than he pleases. Changing the faces of a government is meant to convey vitality, new thinking, a refreshed government or a new policy. Alternatively, it is mad panic.

This week, the UK government shuffled the pack. In a coalition this means that both parties make their own changes. That can prove challenging. The Home Secretary Theresa May is not happy about the Lib Dems imposing Norman Baker in her department. Baker is a liberal to his fingertips. He will oppose the right wing approach of May. So expect fireworks there.

The reality of reshuffles is very personal. The boss is removing status, the ministerial car and a lot of money from some to confer these pluses on others. Most government leaders let it be known that they hate this part of leadership. They dread the meeting where the unfortunate individual is told that his or her services are to be dispensed with. Statements of mutual admiration have to be prepared for the media. They are mostly lies. When the departed say that they have enjoyed serving under the prime minister they really mean that they despise the two-faced, double-crossing son of a gun and they can not wait to have their revenge.

The PM’s letter saying that the ex-minister has provided enormous and courageous leadership is code for: “You were absolutely useless and I should have sacked you months ago.” And: “Actually I never should have given you a job in the first place.”

So when you read that a prime minister or a first minister does not like the pain he must impose by sacking people, do not believe it. Leaders must refresh and shake up their ministerial team. Governments do not move people who know their stuff, communicate on television not in jargon but in English, or who are team players, but most ministers benefit from a change of scene and a new policy area. The longer a minister stays in a department, the more institutionalised they become. The current Scottish government is a case in point. Jack McConnell may have changed his team to often in the last non-nationalist Scottish government, but the former first minister was invariably forced into that by events. Alex Salmond has kept the top people in the same jobs for years. A number now look notably tired and frankly bored. Many are able. But they need a new challenge.

The Nationalists attacked Alistair Carmichael’s appointment as Scottish Secretary this week as panic. That presumably means no change in the SNP ministerial ranks this side of the referendum next September. That will leave a very limited period before the Scottish general election in 2016. Everything may change after the referendum. The First Minister may decide to spend more time with his golf clubs and tartan trousers. That would necessitate a reshuffle from the top.

• Tavish Scott is the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland

The Scotsman Conferences is hosting a series of events capturing the many facets of the Scottish independence debate. 3 December sees a formidable line up of expert speakers tackle “The Independence White Paper: A Business Plan for Scotland?” For more details on this and other great events please visit www.scotsmanconferences.com