Time was when Westminster’s version of Kremlinology interpreted Cabinet reshuffles in terms of whether they strengthened a Prime Minister’s security of tenure at Downing Street and (if that peril had seemingly receded) his or her grip on government. Commentators also used reshuffles as a ready reckoner on which ideological faction was ascendant and which was being dispatched to leaflet Coventry.
There is not much menace in Tory MPs grumblings that Boris Johnson has served his purposes and he should not get too used to his Downing Street flat’s soft furnishings. He is about as secure as any Conservative leader heading towards their mid-term in office can expect to be. Which is to say it could all come crashing down at any moment, but there are few clear indicators that it will.
Perhaps voters will not care for paying historically high rates of tax but – given the budget deficit – how much less would the fiscal burden be under one of the more competent alternatives? It is not as if Rishi Sunak is in some way uninvolved in the economic burdens for which Johnson carries the can. This was a reshuffle with objectives beyond fire-fighting for the Prime Minister’s survival. His position does not need emergency props.
Still less is there any battle of ideas being played out through Cabinet musical chairs. We are not in the Thatcherite world of wets and dries or even the substance-lite “mods” and “rockers” of the Cameron years.
There are those in the country – and especially in the media – who will not forget or forgive Brexit, but the Cabinet has moved on. Is Sajid Javid bringing Remainer thinking to the department of Health and Social Care? How many people recall which side the Chancellor was on (for the record Sunak was a Leaver, not that it makes much difference to his financial strategy)? Of what moment is it that the new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, campaigned for Remain? She is the Cabinet minister many Brexiteers like most. Sociologists can draw what conclusions they may about Brexit Britain, but they would struggle to find much to write about within the Cabinet.
And yet no new philosophical distinction has filled the void that Leave/Remain once occupied. Some Cabinet ministers have a stronger sense of priorities than the Prime Minister appears to have in the array of big ticket spending commitments. But this is only a difference of degree. It may be years (and another recession) before a powerful wing of the Conservative party commits itself single-mindedly to “sound finance”. The cost of carbon cutting commitments is still at the grumbling stage, not nearing civil war.
So this was a Cabinet reshuffle focussed on what ought always to be the priority – trying to find the most competent team for the responsibilities they hold.
Liz Truss has done well at International Trade so she has been made Foreign Secretary. Robert Jenrick has garnered consistently unhelpful headlines at Housing and with his proposed planning reforms now looking like being largely shelved he could hardly carry on.
Neither the quality of his unique abilities in driving foreign policy nor practical political calculation weighed in Dominic Raab’s favour and he was probably in line for demotion even before the Kabul debacle made it a racing certainty. As demotions go, the Justice ministry with the honorific of Deputy Prime Minister was a softer landing than with which many more ruthless Prime Ministers would have cushioned his fall.
no new philosophical distinction has filled the void that Leave/Remain once occupied
Whatever behind-the-scenes services Gavin Williamson performed at the dial of the May administration’s life support system, he broke the link between grades and exam performances – the greatest blow to school standards in generations – and his continuation as Education Secretary would have been unconscionable. The insistence of conspiracy theorists that Williamson would survive because he could be more damaging to Johnson if freed from the omerta that ambition and retention of office instils has come to naught. If the Prime Minister was truly in thrall to those who knew his secrets, Dominic Cummings would still be the shabbiest dressed man in Whitehall.
Priti Patel survives less because of the damage she can do out of the Home Office (to repeat: the Prime Minister does not feel personally vulnerable) but because her tough talk has not translated into tangible results. She will be given the time to see the rhetoric mature into action. And if it doesn’t? … well, this won’t be the last refreshing of the team before the next election.
Few foresaw Nadhim Zahawi as the new Education Secretary and nobody looked at Nadine Dorries, author of The Four Streets (“the worst novel I’ve read in ten years” – Christopher Howse, the Telegraph) as a Culture Secretary in the making. Her appointment will infuriate woke arts administrators. Which explains it.
There being no sensible – political or competency – case for moving Rishi Sunak from the Treasury, an internal struggle that this reshuffle was supposed to solve was the competing claims of Liz Truss and Michael Gove.
On the surface, it is Truss as the new Foreign Secretary who has claimed the prize. But Gove now has Jenrick’s Housing and Communities brief with effective responsibility for the Johnson government’s flagship “levelling up agenda” whilst also retaining strategic oversight in defending the Union – just as the Scottish government prepares its long war of attrition to force another referendum. He remains central to delivery on multiple fronts.
So, who has won between Truss and Gove? It would appear they both have. Boris Johnson’s political nous has not deserted him.
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