In his final prime minister’s questions, David Cameron famously observed that he had been the future once. Then he was out. Well, PM Sunak’s first cabinet shows that past performance is not necessarily an indication of future results.
His cabinet is characterised by recalls from the Cameron, May, Johnson and even Truss eras. A cabinet of all the talents, internal constituencies or conflicting factions…
Five observations from Sunak’s ‘continuity’ reshuffle
No frills. No family. And certainly, no smiles. As Rishi Sunak entered Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister, the message was clear. The British economy had become a very sick patient. Now the doctor had arrived to administer his tough medicine.
Within hours, of entering Downing Street, new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had assembled his first cabinet. In a bid to emphasise continuity and experience, ministers that Liz Truss had banished to the back benches were quickly recalled.
Dominic Raab recovers his role as Justice Secretary and his status as Deputy Prime Minister. Michael Gove again takes up his post as Levelling Up Secretary. Steve Barclay returns to Health.
There was room too for those raised high during the Truss interregnum. James Cleverly retains the Foreign Office. Thérèse Coffey becomes Environment Secretary (where far fewer media interviews are required) and Tom Tugendhat remains Minister for Security.
Unsurprisingly, Sunak has retained the market-steading Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor. Ben Wallace stays in post as Defence Secretary, a role that seems to be his for life, if he wants it.
Nevertheless, Sunak found time to remember his friends. Those that had braved exile with him following this summer’s defeat were richly rewarded.
Mel Stride becomes Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Oliver Dowden returns to the Cabinet Office and John Glen becomes Chief Secretary to the Treasury. With the resurrection of Andrew Mitchell as Development Minister (along with the aforementioned redemption of Gove), there was even a nod back to the Cameron era.
Last weekend, Sunak kept his head down. While leadership rival Penny Mordaunt hit the phones and toured the studios, the ultimate victor was nowhere to be seen.
It’s clear what he was up to. Every facet of this reshuffle represents a carefully crafted strategy. And we can learn at least five things from it.
- It’s all change. But not in a “we need a General Election” kind of way – calls for a General Election are coming thick and fast. Changing Prime Minister twice in a Parliament is without recent precedent. On the steps of Downing Street, the new PM stressed that the 2019 mandate applied to him and his team as much as that chap with the blond wig (Norris? Horace?). By reinstating much of Bojo’s top team, Sunak is clear that the 2019 manifesto, and his mandate to govern, are as fresh as a daisy.
- A team of all the talents – Liz Truss’s decision to banish her enemies from the Cabinet was a huge gamble. They weren’t banished for long. Sunak is sending a message to the Parliamentary party: you can all have a stake in this. But we all need to steady the ship.
- But loyalty matters too – he sent another message as well. Flagrant disloyalty carries consequences. Had Penny Mordaunt struck a deal with Sunak over the weekend she would surely have been raised to a major office of state. Instead, she remains in the obscure role of Leader of the House of Commons. And it’s not hard to imagine Rishi’s relish as he dismissed Robert Buckland, the MP who had defected from team Sunak to team Truss over the summer.
- A true-blue team for the red wall – India has been quick to talk up opportunities between the two countries now that the UK is led by a man of Indian origin. This is Sunak’s worst nightmare. He knows full well that such conversations could set immigration alarm bells ringing in the “red wall” (the series of seats in the north and midlands that the Conservatives must hold at the next election). So, before the Indian PM got too many ideas, Sunak quickly restored Suella Braverman to the Home Office. The former Brexit ‘spartan’ is striving to make tough talk on immigration her one-woman mission.
- Sunak wants his old job back – most Prime Ministers become their own Foreign Secretary. Is Sunak destined to become his own Chancellor? The fiscal statement, planned for 31 October has been pushed back to the 17 November, giving the First Lord of the Treasury (Sunak) time to ‘look under the bonnet’. If such an approach continues, it could create tensions with Jeremy Hunt, who enjoyed supreme power in the dying days of the Truss administration.
Those in Sunak’s top team, may be patting themselves on the back today after a well-received speech and a smoothly-executed reshuffle. But make no mistake: any veneer of calm will take every effort to maintain as the week goes on.
Before long, the new Government may need to announce an “eye-watering” package of spending cuts that risks splitting the new cabinet, gobsmacking voters and authoring Labour’s election manifesto.
That is, unless the early indications of economic improvement (falling gas prices and interest rates on government gilts) are, indeed, real green shoots.
Rishi Sunak is a man that can claim many ‘firsts’. He may be lucky too.
The first British-Asian Prime Minister and the first of the millennial generation to take power. He is also the first to be a self-confessed fanatic of the Star Wars franchise. Over the days and weeks to come, he will hope beyond hope that the force will be with him.