Downing Street hinted a reshuffle before the vote to cut foreign aid. It was hinted again before the vote to raise national insurance. Now it has finally happened, and been one of the most thorough in recent memory.
A thorough reshuffle
The scale of this reshuffle is considerable: sacking key allies like Robert Jenrick and Gavin Williamson, while shunting Raab out of the sizeable role as foreign secretary to the justice brief, with a few conciliatory baubles. Meanwhile, more competent allies like Robert Buckland, who received praise from Labour, and Amanda Milling, who had a broadly good reputation within the party, have also been sacked.
Such a thorough shake-up, and one done without any major retirements or resignations in advance, has not been done since Tony Blair’s 2006 reshuffle. Much like that occasion, this reshuffle shows a premiership in difficulty, with severe stirrings within the Conservative Party.
Before now, Johnson has typically promoted two sorts of people: ministers who were too politically invaluable to keep outside the tent, such as Priti Patel, and those who showed unquestioning loyalty, like Williamson and Jenrick. That Johnson has sacked the latter, and kept the former, is a sign that his premiership is not quite as secure as it might appear.
A bad summer with some tough battles ahead
This has been a bad summer for the government: the aftermath of the Euros final demonstrated a clear loss in the culture wars, while the crisis in Afghanistan, national insurance rise, and universal credit cuts, have steadily eroded the Conservatives’ lead in the polls by five points, according to Britain Elect’s poll tracker.
Meanwhile, potential rebellions are coming on all sides of Johnson’s party. Upset among ‘blue wall’ MPs after the Chesham and Amersham by-election has seen potential planning reforms axed. In addition, Jake Berry’s Northern Research Group conducted a minor rebellion on the vote to raise national insurance last week.
Moreover, some considerable political battles lie ahead. A potential rebellion is in the works among lockdown-sceptic MPs over new autumn covid restrictions. Meanwhile, YouGov tracking shows an increasing perception that the government has handled Brexit poorly, as negative impacts become clear in waste management, supply chains, and labour shortages.
Throw into the mix the new government in Scotland, and the potential of a second independence referendum as a result, and the Johnson administration has some severe challenges to face in the coming years.
A strategy for party and crisis management
All reshuffles have an underlying strategy behind them. Every new alliance forged with a promotion is also an enemy created with a demotion. For it to be worth this risk, the prime minister has to have a clear idea of what his new allies will bring, and that is worth the trouble which his new enemies may cause.
This reshuffle shows that the prime minister’s strategy is geared around two main priorities, party management, and dealing with some of these upcoming crises.
Sacking unpopular but loyal allies such as Williamson and Jenrick will not only appease backbenchers (and the public), but it is a strategy which creates as few enemies as possible. And promoting popular potential rivals like Truss and Gove not only reduces their capacity to rebel, but appeases a certain section of the backbenchers.
In the meantime, some of these new appointments may well gear the cabinet to deal with upcoming crises. While Gove has said little about local government, his appointment in the communities and local government brief may be directed at his existing work preventing Scottish independence. Gove may also be able to provide some direction to the ‘levelling up’ agenda, whose emptiness has become a joke within Westminster.
Moreover, replacing the deeply unpopular Raab with the ‘happy warrior’ Truss may mark the start of the government attempting to do more to highlight the benefits of Brexit.
Problems coming down the line
However, this strategy also creates three problems for Johnson down the line.
The first is that the sacking of Robert Buckland marks a definitive break with one nation Conservatives, and has already been met poorly by them. With Sir Bob Neil, the unofficial leader of the aforementioned rebellion on planning reform, making his displeasure known, it may well have destroyed any chance of Johnson having support from that group of MPs.
The second is that Johnson’s list of potential rivals has only grown with the promotion of Liz Truss in particular. In the past century, a sitting prime minister has only ever been succeeded by the leader of the opposition (in a general election) or by a recent chancellor, home secretary, or foreign secretary (in a party leadership election).
When Johnson came to power, none of his original trio of Patel, Javid, or Raab, could have credibly led a challenge against him. Since then, Patel has already shown that she is unsackable, while Javid’s successor Rishi Sunak is already touted as a potential successor to Johnson. Meanwhile, Truss is far-and-away the most popular cabinet member among Conservative members.
It is worth noting David Gauke’s alternative analysis of this: “It is never good for a prime minister to have only one obvious successor”. I doubt, however, that Johnson’s predecessor would have said the same about the myriad potential prime ministers circling around her towards the end of her premiership.
Johnson’s third problem is the message which sacking his most loyal lieutenants may sent to the rest of the Conservative Party. Johnson has famously never had a caucus of his own within the party, and has remained popular within it largely through being an election-winner, and through protecting those who stayed faithful to him.
A dangerous gamble
This reshuffle may temporarily keep MPs in check, by appeasing backbenchers and promoting and retaining potential troublemakers. It has also been met well in the political press: Politico’s Esther Webber described Johnson as “strengthened, with a tighter grip on the reins”, while the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush, often a critic of Johnson, described the team as “a government that is now set up to deliver its Prime Minister’s priorities.”
But in committing to it, Johnson risks destabilising the career path of would-be rebels who were hoping for a ministerial post by sticking to the party line. In the future, he will have to rely more on their loyalty and less on their ambition.
A dangerous gamble indeed.