The latest cabinet reshuffle in Boris Johnson’s government has seen some familiar faces, like that of former Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, shown the door, but the MPs in the most senior cabinet positions have withstood the shaking ground of government. Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Priti Patel remain in their posts – the latter more surprising than the former, given recent accusations of her bullying staff in her office and generally dismal performance over Channel crossings.
However, the most surprising turn of events in this reshuffle was the move of Dominic Raab to Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, with Liz Truss taking his brief as Foreign Secretary. Downing Street denies that this is a demotion for Mr Raab, and indeed the glamorous title of Deputy Prime Minister suggests otherwise, but the realities of power in cabinet dictate otherwise.
Looking at recent headlines, it is clear Mr Raab’s perceived lack of speedy action regarding the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, due to him jetting off to Crete on holiday, has damaged his public credibility. Gavin Williamson met a worse fate after being simply sacked from his post, but the political reasoning behind this is clear after the A-Level grades fiasco last year – though Mr Williamson did bring in important skills and apprenticeships reform. Yet, as can be seen with Ms Patel’s case, the PM’s approach to disciplining cabinet members look inconsistent at best.
Moving on, what does the recent cabinet reshuffle say about the PM’s plans for the rest of his premiership? Cabinet appointments still lack a gender balance, although the government is making good progress on this. Similarly, the PM’s ‘levelling up’ pledge has not entered the realms of the cabinet office, as shown on the map (new appointments in red), where the cluster of constituencies represented by cabinet continues to be predominantly situated in south-east England – Mr Sunak’s Richmond (North Yorkshire) constituency remains a significant exception to this rule.
Instead, the pattern of new cabinet appointments seems to be based on skills and merit for the role, perhaps a refreshing change to the way politics is done? For example, Liz Truss’s ascension to the Foreign Office makes good political sense, given her previous ministerial experience running the International Trade department, which will be crucial for the large-scale operation of securing post-Brexit trade agreements in the months and years to come. The sacking of Durham alumna Robert Buckland seems to be an exception, given his respected status as a criminal barrister prior to government office and his ambitious plans to reform the criminal justice system. Tory members may dislike such a move by Mr Johnson, but rumours from Downing Street indicate the PM was between a rock and a hard place, with Mr Raab refusing to leave the office until he was given a role inside cabinet. This is especially dangerous given Mr Raab is a darling of the Tory right.
Even though some relationships inside the cabinet may be more fractious than the PM cares to admit, clearly this new cabinet office is full of ambitious and politically active individuals. Michael Gove is already stalling planning reforms created by the previous Secretary of State which would essentially make it easier to build houses (an unfavourable prospect for property-owning Tory members), and thus making his mark on the cabinet role.
The puzzling aspect of this new cabinet for many political analysts is the apparent lack of political ideology uniting all these political heavyweights – new cabinet appointments have neither driven the government towards the right nor the more ‘wet’ Tories, or at least these MPs have not made their own political philosophies known yet. This makes it difficult to assess the PM’s plans – aside from his intense desire to maintain his own political power. It could be a recipe for disaster in the near future, with different cabinet members wishing to assert their own political dominance on the party’s future policies. The PM will be confident that his cabinet choices will deliver the goods in their respective areas of government, but what these goods will look like is increasingly uncertain.
Image: Number 10 via Flickr.