Reshuffles are very strange things. You have no idea when you are going to get a call and when it comes, you have no idea whether it means a new job or a return to the backbenches. Westminster and Whitehall are quietened but with an unnerving sense of expectancy in the air. I felt it the first time I experienced a reshuffle, five years ago – and I disliked it then as much as I do now, which is why I prefer to get out of Westminster if I possibly can.
The chance came last Thursday, when our new Prime Minister arranged her top team. An official trip to the north-west had been cancelled as the government was now in flux and – finding myself unexpectedly free – I was able to take up the suggestion of a very close friend to go to the cricket, a treat I allow myself once a year. So as soon as I had penned my article for the Star, I jumped on the tube and headed out of the Westminster gossip-pit. It was a glorious afternoon and I soon forgot what was going on in Downing Street. The last thing I expected – because I had not expected to get a call on cabinet day – was to hear from Number 10. So when they rang my ‘phone late in the afternoon, I was very, very surprised. Off back to the tube I went, hot-footing it to Westminster to see the PM.
She gave me a fascinating job. The Cabinet Office is one of those parts of Whitehall that even people on the inside sometimes do not fully understand. Its purpose is actually rather simple: it is responsible for making government work – from delivering the promises the PM and the governing party have made, to ensuring that the government itself is principled and efficient, from appointments to property to bulk purchasing to the co-ordination of security to using technology and the internet. It is the operations room of government and consequently, has some very bright civil servants and experts working there. Basically, it is ‘thinking and fixing’, which is precisely what the Prime Minister asked me to do.
I am genuinely sad to leave the Department of Health: serving the NHS is an enormous honour and the challenges made that job one of the most stimulating and exciting that I could hope to have. This new post will be very different: it is concerned with all of government, not focused on one part of it. In a sense, it is analogous to how I have approached my work as the MP for our town: looking across the constituency for things that need to be done – from schools to regeneration to flood defences to new roads – and then setting about making it happen.
The comparison was made real to me earlier this week, when I had a brilliant meeting with developers and landowners about the next stage of regeneration of our town. Our hour was sandwiched with important ministerial discussions, involving big decisions that will ultimately affect us all. But when I had finished the day, it was those sixty working out how to improve the town that stood out: it is so immediate, exciting and important to the town that I care so deeply about. Which is why, ultimately, I will always prize my work in Ipswich over whatever I am asked to do in government – not just because it is the right thing to do, but because I enjoy it that much more.
Which is also why I will continue to be relaxed on reshuffle day.
Photo: East Anglian Daily Times