While the walls of his empire crumble, while scandal sniggers in the tabloids, while unmasked enemies convene in broad daylight, prime minister Tony Blair performs that age-old yet graceless dance known as the cabinet shuffle.
What happens is this. Ministers and MPs stand in a circle clapping and smiling while the prime minister, wielding a sword for general decapitation and beknighting duties, performs his disturbing routine. Cabinet ministers try to hide the panic in their eyes; the rest try to hide their desperation.
This time it was John Prescott’s turn to be beheaded with a swift (yet somehow apologetic) blow. The ODPM was born, lived and died within the space of about five years.
The new department for communities and local government has already expanded by knocking down the dividing wall that separated it from the civil renewal room at Home Office.
Some onlookers see this as a good thing. It means the government is joining up functions that never should have been separated in the first place, bringing a new coherence to the sustainable communities agenda and demonstrating its growing importance within government.
Others see it as an act of political symbolism designed to suggest that the ailing government has a new lease of life.
It is possible to argue that what the prime minister actually did was to clean up the beleaguered, politically important Home Office in the light of fears about terrorism and the recent concern about dangerous foreign prisoners on the loose. And perhaps he added women and equalities to the new department’s remit to answer concerns expressed by MPs earlier this year about bullying and discrimination within the ODPM.
His reasons might or might not matter. What we really should be concerned with is whether the new department will create policy that is more coordinated and easier to deliver than its predecessor; whether those who are trying to influence and deliver policy will find it communicative, understanding and responsive.
Only time will tell. But let’s make this absolutely clear: you don’t need rhythm, rhyme or reason to do the cabinet shuffle - but it helps.
Susan Downer, assistant editor
- New Start Online Online magazine