Prime minister swings axe to kill perception of No 10 drift

UK politics & policy updates

Cabinet reshuffles are simultaneously moments of maximum power and high danger for a prime minister, as Boris Johnson experienced on Wednesday when he prised a furious Dominic Raab out of the Foreign Office.

“Reshuffles create enemies,” said one former cabinet minister. “Boris has surrounded himself with spineless nonentities. The reshuffle has to be radical and significantly improve the quality of people in the cabinet room.”

Johnson’s premiership has reached its critical midterm, and he needs to show he is implementing flagship Conservative policies. His cabinet reshuffle will be judged against one criterion: whether the new team will turn an 80-seat House of Commons majority into action.

After months of drift, Johnson’s popularity among Tory activists has slumped, but the reshuffle displayed considerable confidence as he cut away what he regarded as deadwood and promoted potential rivals.

Raab’s defenestration from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office prompted the biggest confrontation of the day, as the foreign secretary haggled over the terms of his departure.

Smouldering in Johnson’s Commons office, Raab was furious at being made the apparent scapegoat for the shambolic retreat from Afghanistan, and the prospect of his new role as justice secretary.

Johnson’s offer of the title “deputy prime minister” as compensation was seen by one senior Tory MP as a “bauble”. Most Conservatives regarded the move as a brutal demotion.

Gavin Williamson was sacked as education secretary after serial blunders. The former Tory chief whip will now be a formidable enemy on the backbenches — a man who bears grudges and holds many secrets.

Robert Buckland was popular across the Tory party as justice secretary and his sacking, to free up a new cabinet post for Raab, unleashed anger. “He’s collateral damage,” said Sir Bob Neill, Conservative chair of the Commons justice committee. “It’s not a fair way to treat a competent and loyal minister.”

But Johnson was urged by allies to be decisive, and his promotion of Liz Truss as his new foreign secretary was a sign of confidence. She topped a recent ConservativeHome poll of party activists with a positive approval rating of 85, compared with 12 for Johnson.

Truss was regarded as a success as international trade secretary, milking publicity from a series of post-Brexit trade deals, several of which are expected to have minimal economic impact. She will now become the relentlessly positive face of “global Britain”.

Meanwhile chancellor Rishi Sunak, with a ConservativeHome approval rating of 74, unsurprisingly stays at the Treasury, meaning that two potential rivals for the Tory leadership now sit at the top of the cabinet table.

Johnson’s focus on delivery meanwhile means a crucial role for Michael Gove, who famously stabbed the prime minister in the back during his 2016 party leadership bid, at the housing and local government ministry.

Not traditionally the most glamorous department, it is crucial for Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda to tackle regional inequalities — including through contentious planning reforms in England. Gove will also be in charge of fighting the Scottish National party’s push for Scottish independence.

Amanda Milling, co-chair of the Conservatives, was ousted after the Tory by-election defeat in Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats, which stirred fears of a weakening in the Conservative “blue wall” in southern England.

In her place is Oliver Dowden, previously culture secretary, and a veteran of David Cameron’s government. “Oliver will get a grip of the party organisation,” said one Tory. “He’s a smooth southern Tory, which is what we need.”

The promotion of Dowden and Truss, both of whom campaigned for Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, was portrayed by Number 10 insiders as evidence the cabinet reshuffle was determined by competence, not ideology.

Other ministers rising through the ranks include Nadhim Zahawi, previously vaccines minister, who becomes education secretary. Johnson is hoping Zahawi’s effective oversight of the UK vaccines campaign augurs well as he now implements a catch-up programme for children in England’s schools after the coronavirus crisis.

Steve Barclay, a no-nonsense Treasury minister with a rare enthusiasm for the use of data in policymaking, moves to the Cabinet Office to try to get a grip on the central government machine.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan returns to the cabinet as international trade secretary, while Nadine Dorries was perhaps the biggest surprise in the reshuffle: she becomes culture secretary.

These appointments helped to address claims that Johnson’s team was light on senior women, but one Tory MP said: “Nadine bleeding Dorries. Was whoever decided that on LSD at the time?”

Some Tory MPs believe the rightwinger — formerly an opponent of gay marriage — may have been given the job to ramp up the government’s “culture war” with public bodies like the BBC, rather than for her competence.

The shake-up, and particularly the removal of ministers who had become associated with slews of negative headlines, was generally welcomed by Conservative MPs, some of whom have started to doubt Johnson.

His recent decision to raise taxes to fund the NHS and social care, the Afghanistan debacle and the prospect of new Covid-19 restrictions this autumn have prompted some in the party to question the prime minister.

“People in the Commons tea room have started referring to him as ‘Johnson’, not ‘Boris’,” said one former minister. “It’s quite noticeable. This is a big moment for him.”

Three beneficiaries of the cabinet reshuffle

Liz Truss

Liz Truss, foreign secretary

A popular and charismatic member of the prime minister’s top team, Liz Truss becomes the second woman in history to lead the Foreign Office.

An MP since 2010, the 46-year-old is one of the most free-market minded ministers in the government. One diplomat said: “She relates well to people.”

A Remain campaigner during the 2016 Brexit referendum, Truss tweeted at the time: “Leave cannot name one country we would get a better trade deal with if we left the EU.”

But since being appointed international trade secretary in 2019, Truss has rigorously defended post-Brexit trade deals struck by the UK.

Previously as environment secretary she achieved cult status on social media after declaring Britain’s trade deficit in cheese was “a disgrace” at the 2014 Conservative party conference.

In addition to her new role, Truss will retain her position as minister for women and equalities.

Nadhim Zahawi

Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary

When his political future was riding on the rapid rollout of the UK’s coronavirus vaccines, Boris Johnson turned to his old friend Nadhim Zahawi. Like the prime minister, Zahawi was pro-Brexit and developed a reputation as a maverick.

The 54-year-old British-Kurdish MP entered parliament in 2010 but languished on the backbenches for eight years. He was then appointed schools minister when Theresa May was prime minister.

Johnson appointed Zahawi vaccines minister last year. Although he was one of several ministers overseeing the inoculation programme — the biggest logistical challenge the British state has faced in modern decades — Zahawi won plaudits from Tory MPs for his confident media appearances.

Now he faces a major challenge in rebuilding confidence at the Department for Education after the chaotic leadership of Gavin Williamson during the coronavirus crisis. One ally of Zahawi said: “He knows it will be tough but he will relish the new challenge.”

Nadine Dorries

Nadine Dorries, culture secretary

The surprise appointment of Nadine Dorries as culture secretary is a signal Boris Johnson intends to push ahead, rather than back away from, a defiant stand on culture issues.

In 2017 Dorries summed up her stance in a tweet: “Leftwing snowflakes are killing comedy, tearing down historic statues, removing books from universities.”

Dorries, 46, is a longtime critic of the BBC and has described the public service broadcaster as “a biased leftwing organisation”.

A former nurse, Dorries was first elected to parliament in 2005. She was sharply critical of the Conservative party under David Cameron and George Osborne’s leadership, once describing them as “arrogant posh boyswho did not know the price of milk.

Dorries does not play by Westminster’s traditional rules. She has appeared on a reality television show and is one of the most successful novelists to join the cabinet since Disraeli.

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