Shuffling the pack: do reshuffles affect poll ratings?

If they were hoping for a positive poll bounce from their reshuffles, most recent prime ministers will have been disappointed.

If they were hoping for a positive poll bounce from their reshuffles, most recent prime ministers will have been disappointed

This week’s cabinet reshuffle will probably be David Cameron’s last before the general election.

Reshuffles are big events in Westminster and  the preparatory rituals have already been completed for this one.

Weeks of speculation about the date of the reshuffle, check. Widely varying predictions by commentators as to who’s in and who’s out, check. Use of the term ‘big beast’ to describe any minister over the age of 55, check and double check.

Now the government’s media strategy moves to it’s final stage – establishing the narrative. This usually begins before the reshuffle and will continues until all the appointments are finalised.

In essence it’s Number Ten’s attempt to package all the ministerial changes into a simple story for the press and through them the public.

Typically this will consist of phrases like ‘a continuity reshuffle’ if things are going well, a ‘weilding of the axe’ if they are not and that New Labour favourite of ‘putting reformers in key positions’.

In the past we’ve also been treated to a more ambitious efforts like ‘the flat cap reshuffle’, ‘a government of all the talents’ and who could forget the groan-worthy ‘night of the long drives’

This time, if the past few day’s reports are accurate, the narrative is the replacement of ‘old men with young women’. The reshuffle will therefore be judged on whether this is merely a cosmetic exercise by a government with a dire record of appointing women to senior roles in government, or something more meaningful.

But while we wait to find out the answer to that, it’s perhaps worth asking what effect, if any, these carefully choreographed narratives actually have on the public. To find out I’ve examined the polling around every major reshuffle going back to the election of Margaret Thatcher.

The results are in the table below (click to zoom).


As you can see, the most striking finding from the data is how little impact reshuffles seem to have on the governing parties ratings. Of the 17 reshuffles I looked at, 12 of them led to poll movements of less than 3 per cent either positively or negatively – well within the margin of error of most opinion polls.

The few statistically significant poll movements which did occur outside the margin of error were predominantly negative.

If they were hoping for a positive poll bounce from their reshuffles, most recent prime ministers will have been disappointed.

This would seem to give weight to the theory which Francis Elliott floated in The Times this week that reshuffles “instead of showcasing power…have a tendency to advertise weakness”.

While it may be disappointing news for  politicians and the media alike to realise that public opinion is rarely changed at all by reshuffles, it should be welcomed by those who believe in good government.

Rather than constantly changing cabinet posts around or devising media friendly narratives, prime ministers would be better focused on getting the most effective ministers in place and keeping them there for as long as possible.

This way it’s likely they will get better policy outcomes and improve their popularity by being competent and doing things that  benefit the voters.

That said I’m sure it still won’t stop Number Ten from trying to impose it’s narrative on us. And I’m equally sure it won’t stop commentators from studiously explaining to us why this or that change, is or isn’t, the masterstroke that will deliver election victory for David Cameron next May.

These are after all just part and parcel of the usual business of politics. But whatever happens in this week’s reshuffle one we can be sure of is, that it probably won’t have much effect on the polls.

Rich Durber is a Labour Party member and he tweets @richdurber. This is a shorter version of a piece which first appeared on his blog.

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