An increasing number of ministers now work across multiple departments. That can help drive through policy—but can also lead to surreal malfunctionsby Tim Durrant / August 1, 2019 / Leave a comment
In his first reshuffle, Prime Minister Boris Johnson appointed 12 ministers to joint positions across different government departments. These include his brother Jo, reappointed to a joint role on universities and innovation at the departments for education and business—a role which the younger Johnson held until he was moved to transport by Theresa May in January 2018.
Other double-hatters include Zac Goldsmith, who will report to the new Secretaries of State for International Development, Alok Sharma, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Theresa Villers; and Johnny Mercer, who will join the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office as Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. A dozen such roles isn’t an all-time high—David Cameron had 16 joint ministers at the start of 2016—but it is an increase on May, who had 10 at the end of her administration, up from eight after the 2017 election. Ministers have held multiple roles at the same time before—Winston Churchill was Minister for Defence and Prime Minister throughout World War Two—but the idea of using them to bring together related policy areas in different departments has increased in recent years, ticking up steadily since the 1990s.
PMs can use these roles to signal their priorities to the Whitehall machine and make things happen. In 2015 Cameron appointed Richard Harrington as Minister for Syrian Refugees, working across the Home Office and the Departments for Local Government and International Development. This allowed Cameron to say that he was dealing with the issue and also created a focal point in government, bringing together all the relevant departments, to ensure progress was made on the refugee resettlement programme. Presumably Johnson is hoping for something similar from Mercer’s role at the MoD and Cabinet Office—creating a minister for veterans’ affairs and placing him in the relevant department as well as at the centre of government shows that this is an issue the PM wants to be seen to care about.
And many of those who have done this type of job before think that it is a good way of running things. Jo Swinson, the recently elected Liberal Democrat leader, was a junior minister at the business department during the coalition, responsible for equalities policy, an area shared with the Department for Culture. She told the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect programme that double-hatting helped “in preventing…