Taking back control or getting things done

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s much talked about Cabinet reshuffle has arrived.

Today is one of the most important days for a prime minister. The power to appoint ministers, rewarding loyal or effective MPs and punishing disloyal or ineffective MPs, is a privilege exclusive to the PM.  Reshuffles allow PMs to exercise their patronage.

Setting the right agenda

A reshuffle has the power to set the agenda for days, weeks and months to come. Theresa May’s reshuffle of January 2018 was much anticipated only for journalists to report that she turned an exercise of power into one of weakness. Many ministers remained. Some refused to be sacked.

But with a majority of 80 and Brexit all but out the way, Boris’s reshuffle has been very different. Not entirely of his own choice.

It has not been the Valentine’s Day massacre that many first predicted, because Boris decided instead to send a message of business as usual, to focus on delivering a programme to the country, not an exercise in rewiring Whitehall.

But it’s been far from BAU. The resignation of the former Chancellor Sajid Javid has thrown the cat among the pigeons.

Taking back control or getting things done

Most of the drama comes down to No.10’s desire to ensure the left and right hand of government work together and Boris delivers for the North and Midlands voters who put him back into No.10.

To drive change across government and the country, he needs strategic coherence across three outfits: Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury.

Cummings and goings 

Boris and his chief advisor, Dominic Cummings, have complete control over Downing Street. They also have the support of Michael Gove in the Cabinet Office. It’s worth remembering that Cummings was previously an aide to Gove when Gove was Education Secretary. (Some pundits argue their closeness makes Boris uncomfortable.)

So it only remained for Boris and Cummings to wrest full control of the Treasury. There have been reports for weeks that Dominic Cummings has clashed with the former Chancellor, Sajid Javid. It seems that No.10’s request for Javid to replace all his advisors led to his resignation.

Reigning supreme 

Since the election, Cummings has further extended his reach and influence. He has restructured the advisory teams within Downing Street and now the Treasury. Before the day is out, his influence will extend to other departments.

Oh the irony

In many respects, these developments are ironic given Johnson has typically preferred a chairman-style of government. Delegating to those he trusts to get on with the job. Just look at how he stayed on holiday during the tensions between Iran and the US in December, letting the Foreign Secretary deal with the media and the US.

Micromanagers

However, it remains to be seen whether the PM and his chief aide taking full control will mean they can reform the government and the country. The alternative is that the meddling and micromanaging will leave them with little time to work out the wider vision.

If nothing else, let the spending commence

Sajid Javid wanted to be fiscal Conservative chancellor. Balancing the books and keeping a check on spending. However, this is not what No.10 wanted. The pound has risen today after Javid’s resignation on the basis people think the spending taps can be turned on even more strongly than previously thought.

As a relatively inexperienced new Chancellor with advisors that report to Cummings, Rishi Sunak is more likely to give No.10 what it wants.

So, who’s in and who’s out? 

First, the losers

Alongside the former Chancellor, just five further cabinet ministers have been sacked:

  • Julian Smith, former Northern Ireland Secretary
  • Andrea Leadsom, former Business Secretary
  • Geoffrey Cox, former Attorney General
  • Theresa Villiers, former Environment Secretary
  • Esther McVey, former Housing Minister, who attended Cabinet

Three junior ministers are also out:

  • Chris Skidmore, the universities minister
  • Nusrat Ghani, transport minister
  • George Freeman, transport minister

Aside from the Chancellor, the most controversial sacking is that of Julian Smith, who as Northern Ireland secretary got the Stormont assembly back up and running. This sacking is a further reminder that this No 10 wants loyalty – Smith had been expected to resign when Amber Rudd did last Autumn.

Next, the winners 

Appointments are still being announced, but so far we know of the following.

  • Rishi Sunak, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Javid’s number two, takes over as Chancellor. Sunak is a strong media performer, stepping in for Boris during the TV debates. He’s a former banker and hedge fund manager. He’s talented and ambitious and considered a free-market Conservative. Perhaps more importantly, it would be difficult for Boris to lose a second Chancellor so soon, so he’s almost unsackable (for a time).
  • Alok Sharma, the former International Development Secretary, takes over at the Department for Business. He is also now the president of the UN climate change summit due to be hosted in the UK in November, which may indicate that Boris thinks business needs to do more to meet climate change targets. He’s a former accountant and corporate finance advisor.
  • Former defence minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan has become International Development Secretary.
  • Oliver Dowden, a former Cabinet Office minister takes over from Baroness Morgan, as Culture Secretary.
  • Suella Braverman, a committed Brexiteer and experienced lawyer, becomes Attorney General. Braverman notably asked a topical question at Prime Minister’s Questions this month on the balance between parliament and the courts. This an issue No. 10 wants to remedy following the Supreme Court’s intervention in the prorogation of parliament last year. Again, No.10 shows its taking control.
  • George Eustice, a former farmer and agriculture minister, takes over at DEFRA. He’s widely seen as a safe pair of hands in that brief.

Most remaining Cabinet ministers have kept their roles, with some sideways moves.

Ones to watch

One of the things to look out for is promotions among the junior ministers. No. 10 is aiming to get effective but inexperienced MPs into positions where they can learn so they can be promoted to Cabinet next time.

One new position to look out for is HS2 minister. While a tough job, No. 10 has put infrastructure at the front of its agenda, so the MP who takes this role is one to watch.

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