Joint Ministers the Latest Step in Johnson’s Global Britain

February 28, 2020


UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent reshuffle saw substantial changes to the Department for International Development’s (DFID) and Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) ministerial teams, the most striking of which was that the two departments will share all of their junior ministers while each retaining cabinet-level secretaries of state. The move followed the UK’s exit from the EU on 31st January and came after months of speculation that DFID might be folded into the FCO. In this blog, we explore how the mix and portfolio of DFIDs junior ministers has changed over time, how the UK’s ministerial set-up compares with Germany and the US, and what this move might mean for both departments, and we identify opportunities and risks.

DFID and FCO move to a single team of junior ministers

The recent reshuffle left DFID and FCO with a joint junior ministerial team of seven, up from two in the prior year (Figure 1), with each gaining new junior ministerial posts (three and two, respectively). The government now has 13 joint ministers in total, 10 of which include at least one department handling large foreign-facing portfolios (diplomacy, development, trade and defence), and aligns with plans to “integrate” the UK’s foreign policies. 

While this is not the first time DFID and FCO have had joint ministers, never before has its entire junior ministerial team been shared. DFID’s first joint ministerial post was created in 2015 to coordinate the resettlement of Syrian refugees across DFID, the Home Office, and the Department for Communities and Local Government. The post ended just nine months later, yet cross-appointments soon became a regular feature of DFID’s leadership—Theresa May’s government created two joint posts with the FCO in 2017. In 2019, a third joint minister was added, this time between DFID and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Agriculture (DEFRA), with responsibility for Caribbean and Overseas Territories, and climate and environmental policy.

Relative to the rest of government, the use of joint ministers within DFID started quite late. The Institute for Government reports that joint ministerial posts emerged in the late 1990s with New Labour, increasing steadily over the 2000s to a peak of 16 joint posts by 2016. While the late arrival of joint ministers to DFID was perhaps by design—DFID was, after all, created in part to de-link development from strategic objectives—their continued use since 2017 follows plans to deepen cross-government collaboration for development as announced in the prevailing Aid Strategy.

Figure 1. Number of joint ministers in DFID, 2005-2020

Source: Author’s analysis of “List of Ministerial Responsibilities” publications produced by the Cabinet Office, 2015-2019. Data for 2020 taken from DFID and FCO websites. Data for 2005 and 2010 sourced from annual DFID publications.
Note: Data includes secretary of state for each ministry. In 2019, DFID had three joint ministers, two shared with the FCO, one shared with DEFRA. In 2015, DFID had one joint minister with the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Portfolio changes could streamline regional development and foreign policy priorities

The combination of development and foreign policy thematic areas across portfolios—and the level at which portfolios are allocated—can signal changing priorities. From the development perspective, there are perhaps three changes worth noting.

  • First, it gives development policy three additional ministerial posts. These new ministries focus on Asia, South Asia and the Commonwealth, and Europe and the Americas. Ministers can open doors and achieve influence that officials cannot, and having these additional regionally focused roles could strengthen DFID’s ability to influence and accelerate development in those areas. The cross-appointments could also deepen understanding of regional priorities across ministries by providing FCO and DFID officials full access to each other’s briefings.

  • Second, the reshuffle saw the demotion of the sub-Saharan Africa portfolio. After being held by previous joint DFID/FCO ministers of state (MoS), the newest assignments show that the file will be managed by a parliamentary under-secretary of state (PUSS) (see Figure 2), a position junior to MoS. (By contrast, the second long-standing shared DFID/FCO portfolio—Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) region and security—remained at the MoS level.) The Africa portfolio, which has included priorities such as economic development and the CDC since 2019, appears poised to promote investment and growth as part of future UK-Africa relations.

  • Third, responsibility for the Prosperity Fund has been moved to the Minister of Asia (with responsibility for East and South-East Asia), after being held by the Minister of Africa in 2019. This move is pragmatic given that most Prosperity Fund recipients are already located within East and South-East Asia and could suggest that the Fund will continue to focus engagement in emerging economies within the region.

Other key priorities of mutual interest to development and diplomacy, such as security, stabilization, and climate change, remained relatively consistent and continue to be held by ministers of state.

Figure 2. DFID ministerial posts in 2019 and 2020

2019 2020
Secretary of State
Alok Sharma
Secretary of State
Anne-Marie Trevelyan
Minister for the Middle East and North Africa
(Minister of State)
Dr Andrew Murrison
Minister for the Middle East and North Africa
(Minister of State)
James Cleverly
Minister for Africa
(Minister of State)
Andrew Stephenson
Minister for Africa
(Parliamentary Under Secretary of State)
James Duddridge
Minister of State
Lord Zac Goldsmith
**Joint with DEFRA
Minister for Pacific and the Environment
(Minister of State)
Lord Zac Goldsmith
**Joint with DEFRA
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State
Baroness Sugg
Minister for the Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development
(Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State)
Baroness Sugg
  Minister for Asia
(Minister of State)
Nigel Adams
  Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth
(Minister of State)
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
  Minister for European Neighbourhood and the Americas
(Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State)
Wendy Morton
Source: Author’s analysis of 2019 List of Ministerial Responsibilities and 2020 portfolios as listed on the DFID website.

Joint ministers are uncommon across development and foreign ministries

The use of joint ministers across independent development and foreign ministries is a relatively new idea to achieve join-up; most smaller countries house their development work within their foreign ministries, and for the other two major development actors—Germany and US—it is not common practice.

For instance, Germany, which maintains a fully independent development ministry, keeps ministerial teams between development and the foreign office separate. At the top levels, this separation has been considered part of the “coalition arithmetic” of the German political model, where its development minister serves as a second “foreign” ministerial post, and is of considerable value in the government’s coalition-making and negotiation. (Some have suggested that this political calculus has also saved the development ministry from being absorbed by its foreign office). While the ministerial teams remain separate, efforts to deepen coordination across government has been pursued through other means, including the creation of a new inter-ministerial steering group to ensure coherence in implementing its Marshall Plan with Africa.

In the US, the relationship between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator (who leads the agency) and the State Department has changed over time. While the USAID administrator currently has no formal role within the State Department, prior governments have organised this relationship differently. In 2006, for instance, the Bush administration created the role of director of foreign assistance within the State Department, which was held by the USAID administrator. Yet this cross-appointment was short-lived, with the Obama administration determining that the State Department’s Office of US Foreign Assistance would no longer be led by the USAID administrator.

While other countries do have ministers that cover development and other portfolios (the Netherlands, for instance, has a Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation that serves as the deputy for the Minister of Foreign Affairs), these posts have tended to exist within foreign ministries with responsibility for development (i.e., the merged model of aid management), rather than across separate ministries.

Joint ministers for a Global Britain?

The recent reshuffle has not only left DFID with the largest ministerial team in its history, but has also signalled that Johnson sees joint ministers as the harbingers of a Global Britain.

As DFID and FCO new ministers settle into their roles, there remain important questions about how they will split their time across departments and prioritize potentially competing objectives. Yet the joint posts could also create new opportunities to improve the UK’s effectiveness by allowing FCO and DFID officials to explore complementarities, and deepen policy coherence for development. Understanding how foreign policy can support developmental outcomes will be important as the new team shapes the UK’s future approach to development in the integrated review—in particular, by ensuring that cross-government interventions work together to advance poverty reduction.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.