The size and turnover of the payroll vote is not found among comparable democraciesby Peter Riddell / September 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
Britain has too many ministers and they remain in office for too short a time. These are the two most distinctive features of British government. Neither trend is new but they have recently got much worse, notably during the merry-go-round of the closing few months of the May administration and the substantial change of personnel with the formation of the verydifferent Conservative administration under Boris Johnson. Many of the key heads of department have changed at least twice during the course of this calendar year and only a handful of ministers are in the same posts as at the beginning of the year.
Yet even if this year’s rate of turnover is exceptional, the underlying trends remain. There are currently 90 to 94 ministers (including whips) in the House of Commons. This is far more than in other parliamentary democracies even allowing for differences in constitutional structures.
As striking are the long-term trends. The number of ministers in the Commons has risen roughly threefold over the past 120 years. This increase has been despite the end of Empire from the 1940s to the 1960s (resulting in the disappearance of several ministries such as the India and Colonial Offices and then the Commonwealth Relations Office), privatisation in the 1980 and 1990s (producing a cutback in the number of ministers who dealt with previously nationalised industries), and devolution in the 2000s (leading to a fall in the number of UK ministers dealing with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Yet, the overall number of ministers continued to rise as a reduction in some ministers was offset by the invention of new posts, while some departments expanded their reach, notably in welfare and social services.
There are two main reasons: first, patronage. Prime ministers like to ensure the loyalty and support of as many MPs on their own side as possible through the offer of office. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff in No 10, remarked that: “If prime ministers had their way, they would appoint all the MPs on their benches to ministerial office. The payroll vote is an essential parliamentary tool, and the bigger it is the better.” Second, an increasingly activist state. Junior ministers do play an important role in translating grand policy ideas into both detailed legislative changes and implementing them in…