It’s becoming a running theme of Boris Johnson’s premiership that the processes of government can never be carried out without an unexpected twist. What was initially advertised by No.10 as a routine, fairly moderate reshuffle turned into high drama yesterday after Sajid Javid the chancellor of the exchequer chose not to continue in his role. Alongside Javid’s resignation there were a number of interesting shake-ups in Johnson’s Cabinet which will have long-term implications for how the government and civil service operate. As the dust settles, here are four things we’ve learnt from Johnson’s first explosive reshuffle.
No one puts Javid in a corner
The most dramatic change up in Johnson’s cabinet was the resignation of Sajid Javid from the second most powerful position in the British government, after refusing to sack his advisory team in order to keep the job. While this wasn’t an expected move, there were signs that Javid’s position wasn’t as secure it appeared and there has been building tensions between the treasury and Dominic Cummings for months over HS2 and general election spending pledges. There’s an ongoing debate about whether No.10 deliberately forced the Chancellor into a place where in he had to resign, or whether the offer to stay was genuine. Regardless of Johnson’s intentions, the fact that they had Rishi Sunak lined up as his replacement so quickly means that they were obviously willing to lose Javid’s expertise in exchange for a more compliant treasury.
Sunak’s appointment has massive implications for the role of chancellor moving forward. At 39, he is the second youngest person to be appointed chancellor in the last century, and until Johnson was elected in July of last year he held a relatively junior position as parliamentary under-secretary for local government. Once prime minister, Johnson elevated Sunak to chief secretary to the treasury and the MP has long been viewed as a rising star in the party. However, despite having a background in investment banking, Sunak is still enormously inexperienced given the size of his brief and the challenges facing the UK economy post-Brexit.
Given the fact that Sunak now has three weeks to produce this government’s first budget, it’s expected that No.10 will take this opportunity to seize control of the process and shape the budget according to its political priorities, which will probably mean big spending to match last year’s huge election pledges. While this might be good news for Johnson’s popularity in the short term, loosening the fiscal rules to facilitate greater public investment could spell trouble down the road if Britain’s post-Brexit economy isn’t as strong as the government hopes it will be.
Out with the old
Along with Javid’s dramatic exit, the morning also saw a number of big names dismissed from the Cabinet. Andrea Leadsom was removed as business secretary, Theresa Villiers is out as environment secretary, Esther McVey is no longer the housing secretary, and Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith has also been relieved of his duties. The dismissal of characters such as Leadsom and Villiers initially seems surprising given their strong Brexiteers credentials, however reports that have since come out noted that Leadsom and McVey were some of the few minister who were willing to push back on the prime minister in Cabinet meetings.
The most amount of blowback in the morning came after the firing of Julian Smith as Northern Ireland secretary. Smith was well thought of within Irish politics, and received a glowing send off from Leo Varadkar who called Smith “one of Britain’s finest politicians of our time”. It appears that Smith’s greatest achievement, striking a deal to restore the Stormont assembly, might have been his downfall after it was reported that Johnson felt blindsided by the deal which included allowing investigations into alleged crimes by British soldiers during the Troubles. The removals yesterday demonstrate that neither political talent nor ideological loyalty is enough to secure a place in Johnson’s cabinet. Nothing less than full acquiescence to No.10 will be accepted from here on out.
And in with the new…
With a significant number of posts to fill, Johnson wasted no time in populating his cabinet with ministers who owe their political lives to the Prime Minister. Alok Sharma is in as the new business secretary, and also the new president of the Cop26 UN climate talks the UK are hosting in November. It’s notable that while Sharma is a physicist, he hasn’t shown any particular interest in climate policy in his previous roles. It might be that Johnson views Sharma’s inexperience on climate change politics as an asset, given the problems his predecessor Claire O’Neill caused the Prime Minister. It’s unlikely the Sharma will be taking the same principled stand anytime soon. Sharma will be replaced as international development secretary by Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a long-standing Johnson ally with a history of criticising foreign aid projects. No doubt she will be more than willing to reshape the department according to the Prime Minister’s wishes. Similarly, no one is winning any prizes for guessing why No.10 chose to replace Geoffrey Cox with Suella Braverman as attorney general, after she recently wrote a comment piece lambasting the courts for wielding their position “a form of political power”. Additionally, given the number of high-profile women who were fired yesterday, Trevelyan and Braverman’s inclusion was an opportunity to redress the gender balance of Johnson’s team slightly.
While some of these appointees could go on to surprise us, it’s easy to view Johnson’s new Cabinet as a collection of political yes men who have been rewarded for successfully toeing the party line, with the true power now consolidated within No.10. Though this may make the day-to-day operation of government easier, it also removes the internal scrutiny that can identify and eliminate bad policy ideas before they reach the light of day.
Given his 80-seat majority, Johnson has the scope to dismiss important members of his Cabinet if he does not consider them to be loyal soldiers. However, sending this many high-profile MPs to the backbenches does present a potential political risk to Johnson. No.10 is unlikely to struggle getting legislation through the house in the immediate future but if Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadson or Julian Smith hold a grudge against Johnson, they could choose to create trouble for the government further down the line.
There have already been grumblings of discontent from the backbenches on issues including the Huawei decision and the stranglehold Dominic Cummings has on No.10. We’ve already seen that Johnson is not immune from backlash over his often controversial decisions, including the move to expel 20 MPs from his party last year. While the Prime Minister has plenty of supporters in the Commons, he’s short on actual friends.
If any of these ex-Cabinet members choose to take a stand against the government, there will be no shortage of skeletons to pull out of Johnson’s closet. Only this week the Prime Minister has come under fire for allegedly accepting a luxury Caribbean holiday over Christmas from a long-time Tory donor. Given the problems high-profile backbenchers caused Johnson before the election, No.10 may not have considered the long-term implications of making Cabinet decisions based on submission and convenience.
There won’t be much time for the newly appointed cabinet to settle into their offices, as the new ministers need to start work on the budget, getting the Cop26 climate change conference back on track, and assisting in the formation of the new Northern Irish government, among other issues. However, with power firmly consolidated within the walls of No.10, all eyes will be on Johnson and Cummings from now on for an indication of how this government will move forward.