Having won the election with a majority of 80 and the Withdrawal Agreement having been signed, sealed and delivered, today was meant to be the day when Boris Johnson put his own personal stamp on the government with his Cabinet reshuffle.
Much of the reshuffle had been well trailed and briefed in this morning’s newspapers, but few predicted the headline of the day. For weeks now, commentators in Westminster and MPs in the know have been discussing the ongoing tensions between Mr Javid and the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Today, matters came to a head. Having been called into No10 in the late morning, Sajid Javid was given a surprise ultimatum: he could remain as Chancellor of the Exchequer on the condition that his special advisers were replaced by a new joint No10/No11 team, which it was clear he would have little role in picking. Unsurprisingly, Mr Javid decided to walk, saying in media interviews this afternoon that “no self-respecting minister would accept those conditions.”
The new Chancellor is the former No2 in the department, Rishi Sunak. Mr Sunak is regarded favourably by No10 and was one of a handful of ministers chosen by Conservative strategists to feature regularly on the airwaves during the election campaign. He is undoubtedly an able politician but faces the challenge of not just making the big step up to one of the great offices of state, but doing so with less than a month before this government’s first budget.
This change of personnel at the top of the Treasury is unlikely to result in a dramatic change in policy, but it is intended to (and initially at least, probably will) reduce the power of the one part of Whitehall that in successive governments has proved to be an effective counterweight to No10. The Treasury is one of the more institutionally conservative parts of government in the UK, better at saying “no” rather than “yes” and one impact of today’s changes will be that No10 is less likely to be challenged on its spending plans as it seeks to drive growth outside London and the South East.
The new Business Secretary is Alok Sharma, promoted from the Department for International Development and regarded as a safe pair of hands. In addition to overseeing the department for business, energy and the industrial strategy, he has also been given responsibility by the Prime Minister to oversee COP26. Given the importance of COP26 and the UK’s stated commitment to tackling Climate Change, there will be questions over whether he can effectively combine both roles. Expect to see some scrutiny and criticism of Mr Sharma’s past voting record on environmental matters, although those giving him a fair hearing will acknowledge the importance he placed on tackling climate change during his brief stint at DFID.
Had it not been for Sajid Javid’s resignation, today’s big news would probably have been the removal of Julian Smith as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Mr Smith has, after all, just managed to secure a significant breakthrough in Northern Ireland on power-sharing which resulted in the restoration of the Stormont Assembly. The reaction of politicians from both the North and the Republic of Ireland was one of almost unanimous support for the departing Mr Smith, making this a curious decision at a time of continued sensitivity in politics on both sides of the border.
For weeks though it had been briefed that today’s reshuffle would not just be a change of faces around the Cabinet table, but rather a fundamental restructuring of government departments and the way in which Whitehall operates. Any grand plans that Dominic Cummings may have had in the end did not come to pass in what can only be seen as a victory for the civil service. However, the self-styled disruptor-in-chief may try and revisit this in the future.
Following his victory today over the former Chancellor, Mr Cummings will be portrayed as more powerful than ever. Yet history tells us that this rarely lasts for long. Advisers who treat elected politicians with disdain often find they go from hero to zero in rapid time. Mr Cummings may well be feted for his role in delivering victory at the ballot box in 2016 and 2019, but with nearly five years to go to the election the skills needed for delivering an effective government are starkly different.
The new Cabinet
Prime Minister: Boris Johnson
Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State: Dominic Raab
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Rishi Sunak
Home Secretary: Priti Patel
Minister for the Cabinet Office: Michael Gove
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Minister for COP 26: Alok Sharma
Justice and Lord Chancellor: Robert Buckland
Health and Social Care: Matt Hancock
International Development: Anne-Marie Trevelyan
International Trade and Minister for Women and Equalities: Liz Truss
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport: Oliver Dowden
Work and Pensions: Thérèse Coffey
Education: Gavin Williamson
Housing, Communities and Local Government: Robert Jenrick
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: George Eustice
Transport: Grant Shapps
Defence: Ben Wallace
Secretary of State for Scotland: Alister Jack
Secretary of State for Wales: Simon Hart
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: Brandon Lewis
Chief Whip: Mark Spencer
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Stephen Barclay
Leader of the Commons: Jacob Rees-Mogg
Leader of the Lords: Baroness Evans
Attorney General: Suella Braverman
Conservative Party Chairman: Amanda Milling
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