Ministerial merry-go-round

Isabel Hardman previews the next reshuffle with a little schadenfreude and a lot of unease April 26, 2016 / Isla MacFarlane
Ministerial merry-go-round

The housing brief looks likely to change hands yet again and with it any hope of tackling the housing shortage.


Isabel Hardman

There’s another reshuffle approaching in David Cameron’s Government, and it’s the one that is supposed to herald in the real big changes after the election. His first rearrangement of his government was more of a stability reshuffle, keeping most of the big names in the same jobs, but this time around, all sorts could change.

Lower down the Cabinet pecking order, other ministers look less secure than you might have thought a few months ago. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid just a little attention to the housing sector in the past few years that the jobs involving this policy area might change hands yet again. There are mutterings about the performance and commitment of Greg Clark, the Communities and Local Government secretary, with a number of senior figures growing rather nervous that he is not going to manage to get enough new homes built, and that while he is a fantastic advocate for devolution and the restructure of local government, he is less interested in housing.

This assessment is a little unfair on Clark, given the Treasury has staged such a land grab on housing in the past few years. There isn’t much point in the communities secretary spending too much time on the policy area, as George Osborne has his own plans for it anyway, and has a tendency to make those plans without spending a great deal of time consulting more junior ministers about them. This isn’t a particular fault of the chancellor’s: everyone who spends a good deal of time in the Treasury ends up staging these land grabs and assuming that they can do a better job than the secretary of state who is supposed to be in charge of that portfolio.

And Osborne has realised, rightly, that solving the housing crisis is key to the Tories’ long-term survival, as people who own their own homes are more likely to vote for his party. This very political chancellor looks at the housing shortage and sees a future shortage of would-be Conservative voters growing up without being able to afford their own set of keys. He is also supported by David Cameron, who believes it is an essential part of his social justice legacy that the Tories tackle the shortage – although, I understand that the prime minister, too, is getting nervous about whether they will actually manage to do much before the next election. And snapping at their heels is a generation of politicians who are very anxious indeed about the way the Tories approach social policy, among them future leadership contender Stephen Crabb, who believes his party should be more confrontational on housing in order to get the numbers up. The question is whether Osborne can do a better job than Clark, or whether either of them really knows how to increase the number of new homes.

An even bigger question is whether anyone can know just a year into this Tory majority government whether ministers are getting anywhere. Housing supply naturally takes a long time to pick up after policy changes, and this policy area is one of those in which few are held to account for the long-term consequences of their actions.

You are just as likely as a housing minister to get sacked for not getting your name in the paper enough – as happened to Mark Prisk in the last parliament – as you are to lose your job for not meeting the targets set for you in terms of getting enough homes built. And in many ways it is better to be one of those housing ministers who is flung off the merry-go-round after 18 months, as it means that no one will ever follow you up and ask what on earth you actually did when in the job and how you’ve contributed to the continuing chronic undersupply of new homes.

This lack of long-term accountability is a problem that affects so many parts of government, and explains why successive administrations have failed to address big societal problems such as funding for social care, and the sustainability of the health service in general. It is one of the key reasons cited by experts on blunders committed by our governments. But wouldn’t it be interesting to see the many housing ministers from the past few years summoned before a select committee and asked to account for their actions during their brief time in the role? If ministers nervously facing the next reshuffle had to ask themselves the same question of what they were actually doing to increase housing supply, and whether they thought they would make much of a difference while in the job, they might be hoping that their tenure in the role was as short and sweet as all of their predecessors.

The full version of this article is printed in the April issue of Show House.

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