Don't Panic

What does a Minister without portfolio actually do?

In this week’s cabinet reshuffle, Prime Minister David Cameron has made some surprising changes. Homeopathy cheerleader, Jeremy Hunt, is moving to Health Secretary, whilst Chris Grayling, a politician shamed during the expenses scandal for claiming thousands of pounds for his Pimlico home, has made a full rehabilitation by taking up the role of Minister for Justice.

One less surprising change is the moving of veteran ‘big beast’ Kenneth Clarke from Minister for Justice to the role of Minister Without Portfolio (MWP).

Ken Clarke becomes Minister of Portfolio in the reshuffle

Clarke himself was not abashed, stating: "At my age, it is time for me to step back from the slog of running a large department, but I am delighted to have been given a more advisory political role."

At 72, his experience is unparalleled in the cabinet, having served as Health Secretary, Education Minister, Home Secretary and, most notably, Chancellor of the Exchequer under John Major. This experience is probably the most useful when considering what Cameron wants from Clarke.

After all, by its very nature, a MWP must be flexible and conciliatory. High profile examples include the mephistophelean Peter Mandelson and the outspoken right-winger Baroness Warsi. Very different politicians for different times.

Furthermore it is a broken tradition, for example, there was no MWP between 1975 and 1984; the role is retained on an ad-hoc basis. Crucially, it carries the right to vote in cabinet decisions, so there is the opportunity for the PM to bring in cronies who will help them put through votes. In the case of Blair, Mandelson’s role has been well documented as an ally in the struggle with Brown.

So to decipher what each MWP does, one must look at their CV and deduce what experience the Prime Minister needs.

You didn’t need to hear the boos at the Olympic stadium on Monday night to know that George Osborne is unpopular - it is now open season on his economic policy of austerity. Despite this, Cameron’s retention of him as Chancellor during this reshuffle is a vote of confidence in the man and the policy. And Cameron would have less to gain by moving Osborne - we saw, despite the in-battle between Blair and Brown that there was a rugged public respect for the partnership, revealed by three election wins.

The reshuffle’s move to the political right means that Cameron risks looking more isolated in an already divided coalition government. Ken Clarke will now be able to advise George Osborne, away from the day-to-day haranguing from journalists and lobbyists, who are roundly desperate for a way out of the economic gloom.

It’s a smart move for Cameron. If he is to win the next election outright, he will need a unified party that can assure the public of its capability regardless of the economy’s direction. We are now in a second phase of the global financial crisis, where virtually all the incumbent governments, whether Right or Left, have been replaced. But now the voters have grown weary of their successors, too. Clarke is a familiar face for a public who still has more to offer, I’m glad he’s on board.