Contemporary British Politics 4th Edition
By Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins, Robert Leach

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Reshuffling the Cabinet March - June 2003
by Robert Leach

The Resignations of Robin Cook and Clare Short

The Government decision to invade Iraq without the sanction of the United Nations and without the support of many of the allies who had supported both the earlier 1991 Gulf War and more recent wars over Kosovo and Afghanistan provoked serious divisions within Britain and particularly within the Labour Party. 139 Labour MPs voted against war on March 18, 2003. The war provoked some ministerial resignations, but only one immediate Cabinet resignation, that of Robin Cook, Leader of the House from 2001, but previously Foreign Secretary from 1997-2001. His own recent responsibility for foreign affairs made his resignation particularly damaging, and might have threatened the survival of Blair's government had he been joined by Cabinet colleagues. 

Clare Short had publicly described the Prime Minister as 'reckless' and her failure to resign immediately was a surprise to commentators, a disappointment to opponents of the Iraq war, and a relief to the government. The episode stretched the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility to the limit (see Coxall, 2003, box 12.6, p199). Having decided to stay in March, she eventually resigned in May over the handling of the aftermath of war, and claimed that Cabinet, Parliament and public had been misled over the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's presumed weapons of mass destruction. This delayed resignation damaged her own credibility, and reduced its political impact, although her subsequent allegations have embarrassed the government. 

Robin Cook was briefly replaced as Leader of the Commons by the former Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair, John Reid (whose old post eventually went to Ian McCartney) while Baroness Amos replaced Clare Short. Further changes followed in more extensive Cabinet reshuffle in June.

The June 2003 Cabinet reshuffle: implications for the constitution

All Cabinet reshuffles provoke extensive critical comment and analysis. The reshuffle Of June 2003 proved particularly controversial, as it had major constitutional implications beyond the changes in the personnel of government. 

The departure of the controversial Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, had been widely predicted, but Blair decided to bring forward long canvassed changes to his office and responsibilities at the same time. The extensive powers of the Lord Chancellor have long been regarded as anachronistic by critics. As head of the judiciary, presiding officer in the House of Lords and a senior member of the Cabinet, the Lord Chancellor has played a key role in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, in marked contrast to the separation of powers which is a key feature of the US constitution. His own judicial responsibilities, and his key role in appointing senior judges, appear to compromise the independence of the judiciary from the executive. Reformers have long advocated change and the replacement of the Lord Chancellor's Department by a Ministry of Justice. Blair surprisingly chose instead a new Department for Constitutional Affairs, to be headed by Lord Falconer, perhaps in part to provide more co-ordination and cohesion to Labour's extensive constitutional reform programme, in answer to the criticism that the various changes are insufficiently 'joined-up' (see Coxall, 2003, p185).

The announcement of the abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor provoked a storm of controversy, and expressions of outrage from the Conservative Party and its supporters. Awkwardly, it appeared that the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor could not be immediately transferred, and Lord Falconer has continued to sit on the woolsack in the House of Lords, pending consultation on his replacement by a presiding officer independent of the executive. The Lord Chancellor's role in appointing judges will be replaced in time by an independent judicial appointments commission, which should strengthen the independence of the judiciary. More significant still is the planned replacement of the judicial role of the House of Lords by a new supreme court (a possible reform discussed briefly in Coxall, 2003, p246). However, the new British supreme court will not have the power of the US Supreme Court to strike out legislation.

Other changes in the machinery of government with constitutional implications - the downgrading of the posts of Secretary of State for Scotland and Wales - may be seen as the logical consequence of Scottish and Welsh devolution. The transfer of powers to devolved government left little work for these formerly prestigious posts. The remaining work of the Scottish and Welsh Offices was be transferred to Lord Falconer's Department, while Alistair Darling and Peter Hain look after the interests of Scotland and Wales in the Cabinet, alongside their main ministerial responsibilities. While this arrangement looks clumsy and has attracted criticism, it represents a pragmatic compromise between the logic of devolution and the political requirement of a Cabinet voice for the Scots and Welsh in the UK Cabinet.

The June 2003 Cabinet reshuffle: wider political implications

The most unexpected change was the resignation as Health Secretary of Alan Milburn, widely tipped for greater things. For once, it seems that Milburn's desire to spend more time with his family may not have been a euphemism for something else, although it has been suggested that his bruising battles with Gordon Brown over foundation hospitals may have been a complicating factor. He was replaced at Health by John Reid, after the latter has spend just two months as Leader of the House. This latter post went to Peter Hain, a significant promotion, after only a short period in the Cabinet 

There are now just two members of the 1997 Cabinet still in the same post - Blair himself, and Gordon Brown at the Exchequer, and only five others remaining in the Cabinet in different posts (Prescott, Straw, Blunkett, Beckett, and Darling), underlining the continued rapid turnover of Ministers. The departure of Helen Liddell as Scottish Secretary, following the resignation of Estelle Morris from Education and Skills in October 2002 has reduced the number of women in the Cabinet from a high of seven in 2001 back down to five (although Estelle Morris has been brought back as Arts Minister, outside the Cabinet.


A Blair Presidency? The argument revisited 

Commentators have seen the changes as relatively weakening Blair and strengthening Brown within the Cabinet. Milburn was seen as a leading Blairite moderniser, and his departure, accompanying that of Irvine, and following the earlier resignations of Byers and Mandelson, has reduced the number of the Prime Mininster's key allies in Cabinet. One consequence has perhaps been to reduce Blair's capacity to pursue early membership of the Euro, although it now appears that Prime Minister and Chancellor are less far apart on that issue than was previously suggested. The political difficulties in winning a referendum on the Euro remain a more potent obstacle than the reservations of the Chancellor. 

Blair's position has also been weakened by the Iraq war and its aftermath. Although he secured the support for the war of most of his Cabinet, and apparently triumphed, the result has been some reassertion of Cabinet deliberation and decision-making. The Parliamentary Labour Party has become more difficult to manage. There is growing number of ex-Ministers on the back benches, with the capacity to cause trouble. The concept of a 'Blair Presidency' (see Coxall 2003, pp200-4) has become less fashionable. 

Yet speculation that Blair is 'finished' and could be replaced seems at least premature. History suggests that it is very difficult to force out a Labour leader who does not want to go, particularly a Labour leader who is also Prime Minister. It is possible that Blair himself may ultimately decide to opt for a change of scene and an easier life, but the practical and political difficulties in any attempt to force him out are daunting. A leadership challenge would inevitably open up divisions within the Labour Party, which could be potentially disastrous for its electoral prospects, a point Labour MPs in particular might contemplate before threatening to ditch the man who has led them to two landslide victories. The electorate may ultimately desert Blair, but it is difficult to see his party removing unless or until that happens. The power of a Prime Minister may fluctuate with political events, and Blair's may be weaker than it was, but the resources of the office remain formidable.

The Cabinet, June 2003* (Compare with Coxall, 2003, pp 188 and 190) 

Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service  Tony Blair
Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State  John Prescott
Chancellor of the Exchequer  Gordon Brown
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs  Jack Straw
Secretary of State for the Home Department  David Blunkett
Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs  Margaret Beckett
Secretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Darling 
Secretary of State for Health  John Reid
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland  Paul Murphy
Secretary of State for Defence  Geoff Hoon
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions  Andrew Smith
Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council  Lord Williams of Mostyn
Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and Minister for Women Patricia Hewitt
Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport  Tessa Jowell 
Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Chief Whip  Hilary Armstrong
Secretary of State for Education and Skills  Charles Clarke
Chief Secretary to the Treasury  Paul Boateng
Leader of the House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal, and Secretary of State for Wales  Peter Hain
Minister without Portfolio  Ian McCartney
Secretary of State for International Development  Baroness Amos
Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor for the transitional period Lord Falconer

* The order in which Cabinet Ministers are listed follows the official record, which is largely dependent on the date when ministers joined the Cabinet, rather than relative importance of departments.

All references are to Bill Coxall, Lynton Robins and Robert Leach: Contemporary British Politics, 4th edition, Palgrave Macmillan 2003.

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