The politics behind the cabinet reshuffle

Last week, cabinet members were nervously biting their nails in anticipation of Boris Johnson’s second cabinet reshuffle. A reshuffle gives the Prime Minister the chance to remove and replace ministers and ministerial departments. Reshuffles tend to follow commentators’ predictions and perhaps aren’t the most riveting of events, but they can be a useful insight into the direction that the PM wants to take the government.

The latest reshuffle was dominated by Sajid Javid resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was replaced with the shiny new Conservative MP - Rishi Sunak. Javid claimed that Johnson had demanded that he replace his special advisors with others chosen by the PM and, with the inevitable influence of Johnson’s advisor, Dominic Cummings. Thus, Javid felt he had no choice but to resign. Is he showing a bit of dignity here? Is he choosing to stand by his closest advisors who have surely worked tirelessly beside him to manage his duties as Chancellor? Yes...and no. Unfortunately for Mr Javid, it was a lose-lose situation. If he were to stay on as Chancellor, the change of personnel in his department would have been picked apart by the media, showing him to be weak and under the thumb of Boris Johnson which is not the best look for the man in charge of the government’s funds. By resigning, he does maintain some integrity, and shows loyalty to his staff, yet at the cost of being the third most powerful man in the country- after Johnson, and Cummings that is. Thus, it was an impossible situation and, given the situation, I do believe that his decision to resign was the more respectable one.

Moving on to the new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. With a top-class education (Winchester College, PPE at Oxford, masters at Stanford) and his quick rise to the top, there is no doubting the intelligence of Mr Sunak. He knows his stuff for sure. Yet this move appears to be a transparent grab for more control over the treasury by Mr Johnson. Sunak was an early backer of Johnson during the miserable decline of Theresa May, and was, as reported by George Parker (political editor of the FT), the PM’s “favourite” minister. Parker also reported that Johnson would turn to Sunak for economic advice during Cabinet meetings. Javid was certainly going to be tight on the budget and was a perceived obstacle to spending plans which would largely concentrate on the North in order to maintain Conservative grip on new seats. Thus, replacing him with a Johnson loyalist may well be a way for the PM to ensure that the Treasury goes along with all the spending plans. It seems that the wall between Number 10 and Number 11 may be the only block between the new Chancellor and the PM.

Whilst it’s easy to criticise the replacement of Javid as it seems like a power grab, looking into the past, it can be seen that having the Treasury and the PM in opposition is not the best way forward for a government. Blair and Brown often went head-to-head on matters of the Treasury which attributed to the major show of party disunity within the Labour party. This was arguably a factor that led to the decline in Labour’s majority in the 2005 election. Thus, perhaps Sunak and Johnson’s chummy relationship will allow the Conservatives to establish a new era of one-nation conservatism and actually work out a spending plan that can benefit the North, and Britain as a whole. Nevertheless, a degree of independence for the Treasury is important in limiting the power of the Prime Minister, thus, the real test for Sunak will be whether or not he can stand up for himself and establish this independence.

As predicted, the new cabinet feels heavily influenced by Cummings, who played a role in the decision to offer Mr Javid the ultimatum. This reshuffle may have just been a way for Cummings to cherry-pick a cabinet and remove barriers to his influence over the direction of leave you itching for the days of the big beasts, such as Gordon Brown, who were crucial in holding the PM to account. Now that the reshuffle is over, hopefully Johnson and Cummings will allow for his ministers get on with their jobs in peace.

Image: Flickr/Number 10

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