Before every election there is excited talk about how Whitehall will be remodelled. Interior decorators will come into the corridors of power and produce a new, modern design, said to be more in tune with the real world (in which agriculture is a tiny fraction of the nation’s livelihood).
MAFF was in the firing line long before foot and mouth. Mrs Thatcher was no great friend of farming subsidies, but after each election, her cabinet lists included a minister for agriculture; the farmers turned out to have lasting political clout.
Judging by the way the Blair government has blown up a sectional and regional crisis for livestock farmers into a national drama, it too will fall for the agricultural lobby’s line. A ministry of rural affairs is being played up to look after tourism and village life, not just farmers’ economic interests. But what looks attractive on paper can run into the problem of personnel.
A ministry of rural affairs would have to take a chunk out of the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. But deputy prime minister John Prescott is a prickly character. Unless Blair were to get rid of him, he would need compensation in the shape of another big ministry or high profile post.
David Blunkett said loudly he is going to the Home Office while Robin Cook has said loudly he is staying at the Foreign Office. The only job Jack Straw could be offered without it looking like demotion is Prescott’s – or the Treasury. Gordon Brown gives no sign of moving.
Coping with political personalities at the same time as rationalising Whitehall has in the past proven too much even for strong PMs. The game of musical chairs may get so complicated that Blair will give up and settle for only a few changes at the top of the departmental status quo.
– David Walker writes for The Guardian.
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