For more analysis on the reshuffle, Mo Hussein, PLMR’s Managing Director – Public Affairs and Innovation and former Special Adviser, provided his thoughts and perspective on Sky News this afternoon. You can watch this here.
Popularity and the Prime Minister acting from a position of confidence and strength helped to decide this reshuffle. It foremost served as an opportunity for the Prime Minister to get rid of the most unpopular Ministers and promote those who are popular. In the most recent ConservativeHome poll from August 2021, Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson, Amanda Milling and Robert Jenrick were rated as the most unpopular Ministers. They were all removed or demoted in this reshuffle. Meanwhile, the most popular Minister, Liz Truss, was promoted to be Foreign Secretary and the second most popular, Rishi Sunak, remains Chancellor. The Prime Minister did a similar thing upon ascending to office in 2019, quickly removing the most unpopular Ministers which would help him win re-election in 2019. Milling, Raab, Jenrick and Williamson have been loyal supporters of Johnson, so their removal shows his political calculations at work. By bringing in more popular Ministers, he hopes to try and draw a line under recent mis-steps and again improve his chances of re-election in the future.
With speculation about an election in 2023 growing, this reshuffle represents an attempt to reassert focus on the domestic policy agenda. It is important to remember that the last reshuffle was over 18 months ago, and took place before the pandemic seized the attention of the Government. This previous Cabinet was built around delivering Brexit, which it achieved. However, the new Cabinet has been built around the post-Covid recovery. With the UK slowly exiting from the pandemic, the next two years will be vital if the Government hopes to be re-elected at the next election. They must deliver on the promises of the 2019 manifesto that appealed to Red Wall voters – especially the levelling up agenda and public sector reform. With this in mind, the Prime Minister has decided to put reformers into office. Notably, Simon Clarke has been appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Clarke is the first Red Wall MP to be promoted to the Cabinet, and his appointment signals a new direction for the party. By placing him in the Number 2 position at the Treasury where he will play an extremely influential role over economic policy, the Prime Minister has clearly signalled his commitment to delivering on the priorities of Red Wall voters. A similar commitment can be seen in putting Michael Gove in charge of the levelling up agenda.
Michael Gove has cemented his reputation as a political survivor. Gove is the only remaining member of the 2010 Cabinet to still be serving in Government. His long experience in Whitehall will be useful in tackling his new role as Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government as well as his expanded responsibility over the levelling up agenda and the Union. As MHCLG Secretary he will have to contend with passing the controversial Planning Bill and take the lead in tackling the housing crisis. At the same time, he will assume responsibility for delivering the levelling up agenda which is vital to the Government’s hopes of re-election. Not to mention also overseeing the defence of the Union against the SNP’s demands for a second independence referendum. Gove is known as a reforming Secretary of State, and his long career has shown that to be true. It is because of this that the Prime Minister has given him responsibility for these complex and controversial policy areas. Under his leadership, the MHCLG will no doubt become one of the most important Departments in Whitehall.
Liz Truss can also claim a similar distinction as a political survivor, as she is the longest continuously serving Cabinet Minister, having served in the Cabinet since 2014. Truss is by far the most popular Cabinet Minister among Conservative Party members, benefiting from her time as Secretary of State for International Trade which was seen to be very successful – having signed multiple rollover trade deals and recently a brand new trade deal with Australia. Truss has a record of delivering and from her time at DIT is knowledgeable about international diplomacy, having led trade negotiations with many countries. However, with her ascent to Foreign Secretary, a Great Office of State, it remains to be seen how long her popularity will last. Truss has a lot in her in-tray, most pressingly dealing with the fallout from the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the inevitable refugee crisis this will lead to. Truss will be responsible for articulating the Government’s vision of “Global Britain” and ensuring that the opportunities granted by Brexit are seized upon. Truss is only the second female Foreign Secretary and her appointment means that for only the second time, two holders of the Great Offices of State are female. The Prime Minister is always keen to stress the diversity of his Cabinet, and this will give him more opportunities to do so.
It’s also important to note that this is Johnson’s first reshuffle since February 2020. As a result of Covid-19 and the decision to increase National Insurance, the Government’s relationship with backbenchers is undoubtedly strained. Shuffling the pack will provide a carrot to some of these disaffected MPs, many of whom will find the idea of backing Johnson in key votes that much easier if there’s a chance of loyalty being rewarded by promotion, as has happened today. However, despite the PM making a number of high-profile sackings and demotions, he did not use the opportunity to promote MPs from the 2017 and 2019 intake. This makes tomorrow, when he is expected to reshuffle his junior Ministerial positions very important as that cohort of MPs will be looking for their loyalty to be rewarded. In many ways, more discontent could occur if this is not addressed tomorrow.
Finally, this reshuffle will also have consequences for the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. The Institute for Government points out that moving Steve Barclay (who as Chief Secretary of the Treasury was overseeing the CSR) and introducing three new Ministers to the Departments likely to face the toughest spending reductions (Justice, Education and MHCLG) is likely to have a disruptive effect on the CSR process. It will also likely give the Treasury the upper hand in the internal disputes to come over Departmental funding for the next three years.