LONDON — The U.K. Department for International Development got its fourth secretary of state in as many years last week — but new leader Rory Stewart had been ensconced in the job for less than a week before he began talking about moving on.
In an interview with Sky News, Stewart confirmed he would enter the race to become Conservative party leader, which could kick off within weeks as Prime Minister Theresa May faces a rebellion over her handling of Brexit.
The top DFID post has seen a conveyor belt of politicians pass through in recent years, due in large part to a series of political disruptions and scandals.
“This could make everything a bit of a rollercoaster ride for many.”— Former senior official, DFID
Justine Greening, who had held the role since 2012, was reappointed following the general election in 2015, but was moved to the Ministry of Education a year later when the Brexit referendum sparked a change of party leadership, and was replaced by aid skeptic Priti Patel.
Patel was in turn replaced by Penny Mordaunt less than a year and a half later, when it emerged Patel had held undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials and subsequently asked DFID staffers to explore whether U.K. aid could be used to support the Israeli army’s humanitarian operations in the occupied Golan Heights.
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Mordaunt also lasted 18 months before being sent to head up the Ministry of Defence last week, after its former chief Gavin Williamson was axed for allegedly leaking the government's controversial plans over Huawei, which he denies. Mordaunt was replaced by Stewart, who had previously been moved out of DFID during a January 2018 reshuffle.
“Ministerial turnover can be extremely disruptive to the work of a department … New ministers coming in have to learn new briefs and get used to how their new department operates. Their civil servants have to get used to ministers with different priorities and different styles,” said Gavin Freeguard, program director at the Institute for Government, a London-based think tank.
While Freeguard stressed that other government departments had seen similar problems since the 2017 general election, DFID may be particularly vulnerable in being seen as “a stepping stone to perceived greater offices of state — Penny Mordaunt moving to defence, Justine Greening previously to education,” he wrote in an email to Devex.
Beyond the top spot, the small ministerial team in charge of DFID has also seen high turnover, with several positions created or abolished since the Conservatives returned to power in 2015, and two ministers departing in protest over the government's progress on Brexit in recent weeks.
As a result, of the entire ministerial team that was in place two months ago, just one person remains. Minister of State Harriett Baldwin becomes the department's longest-serving minister still standing, with 16 months under her belt.
“We often focus on secretaries of state moving around but junior ministers matter too,” Freeguard wrote. “They’re often the ones driving policy through their departments and getting things done in parliament.”
One position remained vacant for almost eight weeks as the prime minister struggled to find a replacement for former minister Alistair Burt from an ever-diminishing pool of candidates. Burt had worked across DFID and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, covering the Middle East and North Africa, security, and stabilization, and was widely seen as committed to his development posting before his resignation over the state of the Brexit negotiations in March.
Despite an unusual, last-minute attempt to get his job back, he was finally replaced by backbencher Andrew Murrison on Thursday evening, but the long vacancy in a challenging brief did not go unnoticed. Labour Party shadow minister for international development Preet Kaur Gill said she worried about a “lack of accountability” as the department remained in flux.
Burt’s March resignation was soon followed by his colleague Lord Michael Bates, who resigned over the “toxic” Brexit negotiations in April. Bates had previously attempted to resign for arriving two minutes late to parliament in a bizarre episode in January 2018, before retracting his resignation hours later.
One former senior official with DFID said getting a new minister in place doesn't by itself have to cause much disruption. “It's happened so regularly that there's a well-oiled machine able to handle the basics of absorbing a new [secretary of state or minister],” they said.
But “what is more likely to impact on staff are the decisions available to the minister on how they want to run the place, and it will be these that will, over the coming weeks, be the things that trickle down to affect staff at working level.”
In Stewart’s case, he returns to the department having had previous experience as a minister there, which the former staffer described as “a very mixed blessing.”
The U.K.'s new secretary of state for international development is known as much for his outlandish life stories as his foreign policy expertise.
“On the positive side, you're not starting with a blank sheet, having to get them up to speed from scratch, which can be highly disruptive ... With Rory, they're off to a bit of a running start, which can only be good at not disrupting the momentum too much,” the source said.
“On the flip side, ministers who return into the top job will inevitably come back with an attitude about the place from their past experience there, but now with the feeling of new power: They can change the things that irked them last time.”
Describing Stewart as someone who is confident in his knowledge and expertise and likes to “forensically analyze an issue” before taking a decision, the former official added that “this could make everything a bit of a rollercoaster ride for many” in the department.
Update, May 10: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name.