Yesterday’s government reshuffle, catalysed by the breakdown in relations between Number 10 and Suella Braverman, the former Home Secretary, puts in place the team Rishi Sunak expects (barring further unexpected events) to head into the next election. By far and away the biggest surprise (and that rarity in Westminster, a move that wasn’t briefed and didn’t leak in advance) was the return for former PM, (now) Lord David Cameron, to frontline politics as the incoming Foreign Secretary. Of note:
- This was a reshuffle focused on positioning the Conservatives as returning to the pragmatists. Off the back of divisive rhetoric around homelessness, protests and criticism of the police, the sacking of Braverman (yesterday’s highest profile casualty) set the tone for the narrative of the reshuffle. Cameron’s return – positioned as a sensible, centrist statesman returning to help at a time of international crisis – represents an attempt by the leadership to shore up wavering support in Conservative heartlands, namely those southern constituencies (often in marginal Liberal Democrat / Conservative seats) where unease around the direction the government was heading has been growing. A new Treasury team containing Laura Trott, Bim Afolami and Nigel Huddleston comes into place under the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt (who retained his post in a further nod towards pragmatism) and will reinforce this strategy for retaining the Conservatives southern base come the next election.
- The changing of Health and Defra Secretaries indicates a concern that these electoral battlegrounds require new faces in the lead-up to the next General Election. In terms of health, Victoria Atkins replaces Steve Barclay. During his time at DHSC, Barclay has sought to tackle a raft of challenges – on workforce; on ambulance response times; and on NHS waiting lists – but having become a lightning-rod for union discontent over pay and ongoing strikes, there is a sense a new face is required to take the heat out of this particular fight as we head towards an election. Barclay’s ministerial career is far from over as he moves across to replace Therese Coffey in the (arguably equally challenging) Defra brief. As with health, the sense of a need for a refresh exists – not least with the Conservatives knowing the Liberal Democrats will be campaigning hard around sewage and water quality at the next election, coupled with a wider breakdown in relations between the government and rural communities. A real case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ for Steve Barclay.
- There was a significant mid-tier ministerial turnover reflecting the reality that some political careers are coming to a close; some ministers feel the need to devote greater time to defending majorities in their constituencies; and some policymakers have simply ‘done their time’ over a number of years. Longstanding ministers including Nick Gibb (DfE) and George Freeman (DSIT) have stood down whilst there has been significant churn across DHSC (which almost wholesale change of the team), DLUHC, DWP and Defra. How quickly new ministers (such as Andrew Griffiths as the new Science & Technology Minister) grasp their briefs will determine how effectively Sunak’s administration can demonstrate it is delivering in the lead-up to a General Election.
- The merry-go-round at housing continues as Lee Rowley becomes the 16th Housing Minster since 2010. Admittedly, he was also the 13th, so at least comes with some prior understanding of his brief. With the King’s Speech containing a number of Bills that matter to voters (including on renters reform and on leasehold reform), DLUHC will need to act quickly to ensure these get taken forward efficiently and smoothly – again, demonstrating that this remains an administration capable of delivering.