Theresa May’s new cabinet brought the first significant restructuring of Whitehall departments since 2008. In this post Peter Waller considers the pros and cons of these changes. He concludes that the downsides outweigh the advantages, suggesting that there were alternative options that would have allowed dedicated Brexit and International Trade ministers to join the cabinet without the difficulties involved in establishing new departments.
In announcing her new cabinet, Theresa May indulged in a certain amount of Whitehall restructuring. Two new departments were created – the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade. To balance the books (at least in part) she abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, transferring its functions to the Business department. The Business department (now formally the rather turgidly titled Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) in turn lost responsibility for higher education and science policy, which returned to the education department from where it had come almost a decade earlier.
The new Prime Minister thus made the first significant changes to the Whitehall infrastructure since 2008, when Gordon Brown created DECC. David Cameron, whether by design or lack of interest, had maintained the departmental structure he inherited. So the 2016 changes found Whitehall needing to set up new departments, something it had not done for half a generation.
So are these changes likely to prove worthwhile? What are the pros and cons of marking a national turning point – which Brexit undoubtedly was – with new departments with a new focus? Writing as someone who spent a high proportion of my Whitehall career in departments whose boundaries were constantly changing, I rather sadly conclude that in this area decisive action by Theresa May is likely to be rather more troublesome than the benign neglect of her predecessor.