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Political turbulence is preventing ministers from mastering briefs

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Commentary on a day of political drama

We were going to concentrate this LGC briefing on how Dominic Raab’s promotion to the Department for Exiting the EU leaves the housing ministry seeking yet another new minister.

The new holder of the role, Kit Malthouse – a former Westminster City councillor – will be the fourth housing minister in Theresa May’s two-year premiership, a premiership which supposedly regards housing as its priority. He will also be the 16th holder of the role since 1997, according to Institute of Government analysis.

A revolving door in the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government is hardly the best means of ensuring the government fulfils its supposed number one non-Brexit priority. Housing ministers simply have not had enough time in their new role to get to grips with the housing crisis. While there has been an increase in construction in recent times, there is still a growing shortage of genuinely affordable housing. Over the past 20 years ministers have frequently seemed underprepared for the scale of the problem they face.

Last year’s appointment to housing minister was Alok Sharma, who was hours into the role when the Grenfell Tower fire happened. This was a horrific test for a new minister to face with a complete lack of knowledge of their brief. While no one could have foreseen what was going to happen at Grenfell, there is a general principle here that ministers deal with important things and they get better at understanding their jobs as they become more experienced.

Mr Sharma was reshuffled just when he had started to impress a few people, leaving it for Mr Raab, perhaps the ultimate small state Conservative, to oversee housing (without enormously favourable results for the social housing sector). A charitable assessment may have been that seven months in post did not offer Mr Raab sufficient time to demonstrate significant achievement.

However, today’s mid-afternoon resignation of Boris Johnson indicates yet more turbulence at the top of government. There is no reason to believe the resignations have stopped. Should Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove et al join the cabinet departures lounge, the government’s survival look dubious.

After years of indecision Ms May has now come out in favour of a soft Brexit. But there is no guarantee that she can negotiate a deal with the EU or that she has sufficient parliamentary support to get the sort of deal she wants. Her administration is weak and divided. Some big beasts are seeking the opposite path to that she seeks to take.

In the coming days we may see more reshuffling, something which will inevitably result in yet more ministries being overseen by ministers who know little about their brief. Should a significant number of ministers exit government, Ms May could decide that the secretary of state overseeing local government, James Brokenshire, a rare May loyalist, is due a promotion (little more than two months since he took on that role).

And, it was reported over the weekend, that Rishi Sunak, the minister leading on council finance and the fairer funding review, is among those whose promotion prospects are being assessed by Ms May (or, alternatively, one who could walk from government, depending upon which paper you read). Councils need action on finance – the thought of it being set back for another new minister to master their brief cannot be countenanced.

So this means yet more uncertainty, more division and a less effective central government.

The only way out of it is another general election. But we live in a divided nation. It is hard to anticipate that an election would result in a clear victory, a strong government and the nation’s Brexit wounds healing. We live in troubling times.

Nick Golding, editor, LGC

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