Cabinet reshuffle - Johnson clears the decks

18/02/2020

Westminster commentators presumed this week that Prime Minister Boris Johnson would conduct a mild to moderate ‘pruning’ of his Cabinet ahead of a much-anticipated reshuffle following his December General Election victory and sizeable 87-seat working majority. Yet what instead unfolded could be described as a political earthquake with the PM’s Special Adviser Dominic Cummings clearly having exerted his authority in the Cabinet shake-up.

The most unexpected change was the ‘resignation’ of the Chancellor Sajid Javid. Interviewed outside his London home, Javid acknowledged that had been offered the chance to stay in post but only on the condition that he sacked all of his political advisers – something in his own words that ‘no self-respecting minister’ could accept. Instead, he chose to resign on principle. There had been concerns in Number 10 that Javid could act as a choke on Boris’ ambitious spending plans to cement the votes in the North ‘loaned’ to the party by the ‘Red Wall’ of traditional Labour leaning seats in the election.

Javid’s replacement was quickly unveiled, suggesting that Number 10 had anticipated his response to the prospect of a joint Number 10 and 11 Downing Street policy unit. In stepped a rising star in the Conservative Party, Rishi Sunak. An MP of less than 5 years and up until 7 months ago a junior Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government - his ascendency to the Treasury and second most prestigious office of state has been prolific. Johnson and Cummings plans to water down the Treasury’s longstanding position as a bastion of Whitehall spending power may see Sunak incredibly hamstrung in his ability to independently manoeuvre the levers of economic policy compared with predecessors in post. The Chancellor has effectively three weeks to write his first budget. It would not be an outlandish theory that it already lies written on the PM’s desk.

Another dismissal in the reshuffle raising eyebrows was that of Julian Smith as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Smith’s firing comes just a few weeks after having helped to broker an agreement seeing the restoration of powers at Stormont following three years without devolved government. The outgoing Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described him as ‘one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time’. Smith had reportedly been very open in Cabinet regarding perceived threats to Northern Ireland arising from Brexit. His dismissal suggests that serving at the PM’s pleasure requires unquestionable loyalty – and even then, is no guarantee.

Another noticeable announcement was the confirmation of Alok Sharma to head up the upcoming COP 26 climate change conference following the recent sacking of Claire Perry O’Neill. Sharma was also moved from the Department for International Development to Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to replace the outgoing Andrea Leadsom. By doing so Johnson has signalled to critics that the conference and issue of climate change is one of utmost priority for his government. 

Other cabinet members relieved from post were Theresa Villiers at DEFRA (replaced by George Eustice) and Geoffrey Cox as the Attorney General, to be replaced by Suella Braverman. She is not one to back away from a fight with the courts and only last month criticised the ‘growing powers of judges over politicians’. Somewhat surprising however was the sacking of Northern MP Esther McVey as Housing Minister. Her decision to openly push back against the PM in Cabinet on occasion may have led to her downfall. She is succeeded by Chris Pincher, moved from the FCO as Europe Minister. The UK is now on its tenth Housing Minister in as many years. It is good working practice to allow people to get their feet under the table, establish their brief, and let them get on. Barring a constitutional crisis there won't be another election until 2024. What are the odds on the current crop of ministers remaining in post for the duration?

As widely expected, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, survived as Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary respectively. Matt Hancock remains as Health Secretary as does Ben Wallace as Defence Secretary despite widespread speculation around his post. Liz Truss also continues as Secretary of State for International Trade and now holds the surprising title of the longest current serving Minister in the Cabinet.

The Cabinet has now been downsized by only one following the closure of the Department for Exiting the European Union, while also having one fewer female and ethnic minority ministers. Parliament is now in recess, returning on 24th February. New ministers will spend the week learning the ropes and personalities within their departments but will soon have to swing back into action upon Parliament’s return. Johnson has signaled his intent to rule from the centre. His Commons majority allows him to do that and key votes are expected to pass unchallenged. How recently deposed Ministers decide to ‘settle’ back onto the backbenches however remains to be seen. Big beasts such as the former Chancellor will bide their time – but they will be watching for an opportunity to make their mark, and potentially, settle scores.

The composition of PM loyalists in the Cabinet will be crucial in shaping the direction of travel as Britain begins to attempt to negotiate a trade agreement with the European Union. Having a group of people around him wholeheartedly signed up to his mantra suggests if the EU wants to play difficult, so will he.

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