FTI Consulting Public Affairs Snapshot – Boris Johnson’s post-pandemic reshuffle
After much frenzied speculation, the Prime Minister set about his long-anticipated Cabinet reshuffle yesterday afternoon. Amid growing concern that rumours of change were undermining the Government’s ability to move forward with its policy agenda, Johnson rolled his dice earlier than some had expected. When he did so he did it fairly ruthlessly, with no less than 12 changes to his top team.
As is customary, the reshuffle began with the pruning. Top of the hit list – the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson – was no surprise. Two successive summers of exam chaos had left him a target of intense criticism and he had lost the confidence of teachers and parents.
The two other departures from Cabinet were less expected. Robert Buckland was generally seen to have performed well as Justice Secretary, regaining the confidence of the legal profession whilst also pushing forward with Government objectives. Robert Jenrick, despite previous criticism over conflicts of interest, was key to delivering on controversial planning reforms aimed at addressing the shortage of affordable housing. His removal perhaps suggests dilution or a change of approach.
Dominic Raab might retain his seat at Cabinet – he takes over from Buckland at Justice – but his switch from the Foreign Office cannot be read as anything less than a demotion on the back of his much criticised handling of the situation in Afghanistan. There is of course plenty of scope for him to rebuild his reputation at DoJ – but his simultaneous appointment to the recreated Deputy Prime Minister role seems designed for little more than saving face.
Unsurprisingly, Rishi Sunak stays at the Treasury. Despite – or perhaps because of – rumours of a growing rivalry with the Prime Minister, his position was always secure. His response to the pandemic has been widely praised and his removal would have created a potential challenger with a broad base of party support. Of course, despite his popularity, the hard work of economic recovery starts here.
Home Secretary Priti Patel might consider herself more fortunate. Subject to intense speculation over her handling of the migrant crisis and alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code, she remains in post. No doubt her anti-immigration, hard-on-crime brand of conservativism appeals to sufficiently large numbers of the Conservative base to make moving her a difficult prospect.
If Raab was found wanting, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace cemented his position during the Afghanistan crisis, quashing rumours of his forthcoming demise. Pleased with the deal he secured from the Integrated Review in March, Wallace will now be looking forward to delivering on it.
Unlike Geronimo the alpaca, the unlikely focus of DEFRA’s summer in-tray, George Eustice survives as Environment Secretary despite rumours that he was due a move. Grant Shapps remains in post as Transport Secretary despite being faced with the difficult task of handling COVID travel restrictions. Therese Coffey also stays at DWP ahead of looming and controversial changes to Universal Credit.
Other non-movers were seemingly more predictable. Relative newcomer Kwasi Kwarteng has hit the ground running since his appointment as Business Secretary and continues in post. Equally, Sajid Javid – only in post since June – stays as Health Secretary. Elsewhere, Lord Frost keeps the Brexit brief and, with only six weeks to go until COP26 opens in Glasgow, Alok Sharma remains in charge.
Alister Jack, Simon Hart and Brandon Lewis also keep their respective portfolios for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, while Chief Whip Mark Spencer will continue to coordinate relations with the increasingly rebellious Conservative backbenches. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman and Baroness Evans keep their roles as Leader of the House of Commons, Leader of the House of Lords and Attorney General respectively.
The rise of Liz Truss at DIT – a favourite among Conservative members on the back of some successful post-Brexit trade dealing – sees her rewarded with the office of Foreign Secretary, an indication perhaps of a shift towards a foreign policy more unashamedly supportive of free trade and liberal democracy in opposition to China.
Long seen as one of the most effective reformers in government, having left his mark on education, environment and Brexit, Michael Gove’s move to DHCLG is a recognition of the need for new dynamism in response to the housing crisis. He also keeps his responsibilities for promoting and protecting the Union amid renewed calls from Holyrood for another Scottish independence referendum. As such, Gove is tasked with addressing two of the most pressing issues of the day.
At DCMS, Oliver Dowden’s coordination of pandemic support measures for the creative sector won plaudits within the Tory party and his move – some would say demotion – to Party Chair comes as somewhat of a surprise. Nevertheless, a safe pair of hands, Dowden will be trusted with the numerous media appearances required in his new role.
The new (and returning) faces around the Cabinet Table
Barclay has been ‘attending’ as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, but the former Brexit Secretary now returns in a proper capacity 18 months after his old job was abolished. He takes Michael Gove’s place as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and will be given licence to roam across departments while providing the glue for ‘joined-up government’. His reputation as loyal, reliable and a bit forgettable might all help. But precisely where his focus lies remains to be seen.
An ardent Johnson loyalist, Dorries is famously forthright and outspoken, her appointment to the DCMS brief will instantly divide opinions both inside the Party and more widely. To the political right of many colleagues, a member of the socially conservative Cornerstone Group of MPs no less, there will be plenty of attention given to the approach she takes to some of the biggest issues now across her desk such as online safeguarding and the future of Channel 4.
Trevelyan was in the Cabinet as recently as a year ago, overseeing the disbandment of the international development department and her own job with it. She no doubt expected to be back sooner than this and her elevation came as little surprise. Given the trade portfolio, she enters a department widely seen as flying high and pressure will be on to keep delivering post-Brexit success stories.
Many will regard Zahawi’s promotion to Education, one of the most scrutinised roles in the Cabinet, as just reward for his key role at DHSC coordinating the successful Covid vaccine rollout over the past nine months. He takes on a department still reeling from the impact of the pandemic and lacking in public confidence; Johnson will hope Zahawi’s recent successes can quickly be replicated. Top of his agenda? Making sure that any autumn Covid surge doesn’t force schools to close their doors once more.
As Vaccines Minister Nadim Zahawi has basked in his association with the most effective component of the Government’s response to the pandemic and his promotion to Education was not a surprise. But the task of repairing relations with the teaching profession as the education system recovers from the pandemic is no small job to take on.
In one of the biggest surprises of the reshuffle, junior health minister, Nadine Dorries, was promoted to the Cabinet in charge of DCMS. A No.10 loyalist she will be expected to strike a firmer tone on cultural issues, though the increasingly large part of her portfolio is the digital brief, where complex and emotive issues of communications infrastructure and online safety await.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan returns to Cabinet at DIT – having overseen the merger of her former Department for International Development into the FCDO – where she will be tasked with maintaining the momentum of her predecessor in delivering on the Government’s Global Britain vision.
Taking over from Gove as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, former Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay has been handed effective control over the Cabinet Office. A somewhat nebulous role in Government, it is nevertheless one that provides unique oversight across departments, bestowing considerable influence.
The last 18 months has wrought a crisis with huge implications across every area of government. Ministers have dealt with immense challenges and been forced to develop solutions quickly, all the while burning through political capital in order to get things done. Whilst some in Cabinet have been praised for rising to the challenge, for others, missteps have bled the confidence of the public and, seemingly, the Prime Minister. In this context, this reshuffle was an opportunity to refresh the Government and inject new energy into important portfolios.
Increasingly attuned to political priorities beyond the pandemic, the Prime Minister knows he now needs to be seen to deliver on his manifesto promises if he is to retain popularity and power. A reshuffle always provides a rare moment of public repositioning and Johnson will hope this moves him from a ‘crisis cabinet’ to a ‘recovery government’. Prime Minister’s are often wary of reshuffles as they carry as much risk as potential reward. This reshuffle did not signify a shift in any particular political direction with the focus very much on making progress in key policy areas. Boris Johnson will hope that the team he now has in place will be able to guide his government through to the next General Election in decent shape.
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