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What’s happened?

On Wednesday, Boris Johnson made his first move in the current reshuffle of his senior level cabinet. Speculation had been rampant in the run-up to the reshuffle, with some of the big names facing criticism in recent months. With the levelling-up agenda as a top priority for Johnson, he has placed an emphasis on making sure that he has the domestic team ready to tackle some of the country’s biggest challenges.

Headline sackings are Gavin Williamson as education secretary, Robert Buckland as justice secretary and Robert Jenrick as local government and communities secretary. Dominic Raab has also been demoted from foreign secretary to justice secretary and deputy prime minister.

Other senior ministers, such as health secretary Sajid Javid, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and chancellor, Rishi Sunak remain in their existing roles. Priti Patel has escaped danger for now and will remain in-post.

Who’s going?

Robert Jenrick has been removed as minister for communities and housing. His most notable controversy was overruling Tower Hamlet’s local council and the government’s Planning Inspectorate, to approve a £1bn development for a block of flats in east London. It later emerged that media mogul, Richard Desmond had shown him a housing promo video on his personal phone at fundraising event two months earlier.

Dominic Raab has had a significant demotion - moving from foreign secretary to deputy prime minister and lord chancellor and justice secretary. He came under fire recently during the Afghanistan withdrawal crisis for his absence during the Kabul airlift. Raab has faced harsh criticism for his handling of the situation from opposition and fellow MPs alike. Despite being a demotion, it is perhaps his loyal and trustworthy reputation in Downing Street that has allowed him to gain his lesser role as deputy prime minister.

Robert Buckland has been sacked as justice secretary. Mr Buckland, who was one of the cabinet’s few remaining “One Nation” Tories, said: “I am deeply proud of everything I have achieved. On to the next adventure.”

Gavin Williamson will be leaving his role as education secretary. Williamson’s career has seen no shortage of bad press during the COVID-19 pandemic including clashes with Marcus Rashford and the closure of schools one day after they re-opened. He’s also faced significant criticism over algorithms that altered the grades of students. Before his departure, Williamson had the lowest approval ratings amongst Conservative party members compared to other ministers, by a considerable margin.

Who’s New?

Replacing Williamson at the Department for Education is Nadhim Zahawi, formerly minister for vaccine deployment. His previous role earned him praise for the efficient and fuss-free rollout of the vaccine. That praise also extended to Boris Johnson himself, which for a period brought him a notable boost in the polls. Having previously worked in the DfE, Zahawi said he was “honoured” to be back as education secretary. Zahawi will, no doubt face tough challenges in the immediate future; Williamson struggled to convince the Treasury to grant more funds and with the comprehensive spending review coming up next month, he will surely be looking to succeed where his predecessor has not. And that’s on top of the continuing challenge of repairing lost learning suffered by children during the pandemic.

Liz Truss has taken Dominic Raab’s role as foreign secretary, leaving her former role at the Department for International Trade, where she had moderate success securing a series of post- Brexit trade deals. This makes her the longest continuously serving member of the current cabinet, having been at the top since 2014.  Replacing her at the Department for International Trade is Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a former energy minister and international development minister. An experienced politician, Trevelyan now faces moderate challenges of finalising a deal with Australia and an agreement in-principle with New Zealand. Tougher tasks include getting the U.S. to drop tariffs on British steel and aluminium.

Michael Gove has been appointed as minister for housing, communities and local government. Whilst traditionally seen as a more junior role, the department will be instrumental in the government’s levelling-up agenda. The Conservatives will also want to be using Gove’s reforming character to ensure that the political ramifications of any planning reforms do not backfire in the Tory county constituencies. He will be replaced at the cabinet Office by Steve Barclay, former chief secretary to the Treasury.

Simon Clarke has also taken over as chief secretary to the Treasury. Such a move has invited a mixed response in Whitehall, given that strategic conversations will take place around budget allocations ahead of the spending review on 27 October. Clarke has been an avid advocate of the prime minister’s levelling-up agenda – and presumably has been moved into the role to ensure that the spending review includes announcements that strengthen Tory support in the ‘red wall’ constituencies, that Labour lost to the Conservatives at the last election.

In Summary

A number of early supporters of Johnson’s bid to lead the Conservative party were removed from their positions. There also seems to be a focus from Downing Street on emphasising that this is the right team to tackle domestic issues. One senior Downing Street insider was quoted saying the long-awaited cabinet reshuffle would “put in place a strong and united team to build back better from the pandemic.”

The cabinet is now primed to look ahead towards winning the next general election. Oliver Dowden, the new co-chairman told Tory MPs on Wednesday night to start preparing for one, which could be in as little as 20 months’ time.

Looking at the reshuffle more closely, if any pattern were to be discerned from the hiring and firing, it could be the removal of ministers who were unpopular with Conservative party members and promoting those that were. This reorganisation based on polling and good publicity doesn’t come without its caveats for Johnson. With his current approval rating at 12, he now has two senior cabinet ministers with ratings considerably higher than himself: Liz Truss topping the tables at 85 and Rishi Sunak at 74, both of whom are deemed as potential rivals for the Tory leadership.

Johnson’s reshuffle therefore gives off every impression of confidence.