Ian Parker, Head of Strategic Communications, NLGN
Now that the stardust has finally begun to settle on our sparkling new government, you could be forgiven for wondering if the commotion surrounding the recent reshuffle had something to do with the craze for Sudoku emerging at the time.
Without realising it, the PM may have in fact spent the evening of 6 May with a large 9 x 9 grid subconsiously laid out in front of his tired post-election eyes, contemplating the conundrum before him. “Right, that’s that finished. I’ve got 2 of mine in each bit, 2 of Gordon’s lot, a former trade unionist, an ex-NUS President, an ex- think tanker, someone in their 20s and a Lord. Hang on, there are three Lords and an ex-Tory in that right hand column and I’ve missed out that extremely capable if rather technocratic Minister of State. Oh Soduku this for a game of soldiers, tell the press office to start briefing about the Cabinet posts and I’ll finish this puzzle in the morning”.
Reshuffles, post-election or otherwise, are rarely clear cut affairs. An opportunity to refresh ministers and ministries alike through promotions and demotions, rebuilding and rebranding, they are also manna to political anoraks. With our ever watchful rolling news channels dissecting the rationale of every movement and manoeuvre, the recent ‘Sudoku shuffle’ left a raft of questions in its wake.
Most national commentators spent the aftermath referring to their political scales in the hope of offering the public an accurate measure of the Blairite/Brownite balance of power. Local government observers meanwhile, were left looking for some clear interpretation of the promotion of David Miliband to Cabinet in the newly defined role of ‘Minister for Communities and Local Government’. Although, lest we became too excited, both the BBC and Sky News quickly renamed the post “Communities Minister”, betraying the esteem in which the news media holds our Town Halls.
With John Prescott bedding in as Deputy Prime Minister in the same department as Miliband, more pointed questions also arose across the local government community. Naturally, two ministers shouting your corner in Cabinet will always be better than one. But how would the responsibilities for one of Whitehall’s most complex briefs divide up between them back at base? Would Miliband have the free reign to fly a few policy kites within and beyond the department? Or would Prescott, with his well documented distrust of think tanks, have powers of veto over every “blue sky” idea filtering from the brain of the former head of the No.10 Policy Unit?
Notwithstanding the messages that have been put out by the ODPM, it’s still not that clear how the duality will work in practice.
Parallel to this, questions have also been raised about the briefly touted notion that Miliband would be ‘minister for respect’. In particular, what would this mean for those within the Home Office who have been clearly leading on this agenda?
Some of the confusion has no doubt arisen as a hangover from the job that was allegedly carved out for David Blunkett’s return to Cabinet, and which left the broadsheets speculating over what could have been. Nevertheless, it’s perfectly sensible for the ‘respect’ brief to be cut two ways. While the Home Office concentrates on policing the problems that blight many neighbourhoods, the ODPM can focus on nipping such behaviour in the bud through encouraging greater community participation.
Among persistent and ongoing chatter about the need for joined-up government, getting such complementary strands to work in tandem is vital. It is also the sort of conundrum that reduces Sudoku to the level of an easy crossword.