26 October 2022

Rish pickings – what does the reshuffle tell us about how Sunak plans to govern?


If the ‘vibe’ – to quote the yoof – of the Truss government was ‘girl boss’, that of Sunak’s has so far been ‘sensible chap’. Whereas our second Prime Minister of the year went for Taylor Swift, pant-suits, and packing her Cabinet with supporters, our third has opted for mostly appointing blandly effective ministers of a remarkably similar cloth. It says a lot about how Sunak plans to govern. 

Reshuffles are a delicate political art. Like many of those arts, it was one where Liz Truss made several errors in her time in Number 10. Her Cabinet was stuffed almost entirely by people who shared her ideas. Not only did this alienate or antagonise many MPs who were already pre-disposed against her, but it meant that all at the top table owned some of the mistakes that her short-lived government made. 

Sunak appears to have learnt lessons from his predecessor’s example. His Cabinet reshuffle did see a few Truss supporters losing out, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Simon Clarke. Nonetheless, key allies were retained, with the Truss and Johnson backers James Cleverly and Ben Wallace retaining the Foreign Office and Defence respectively. 

That is a sign that Sunak plans to prize talent over loyalty. With the Tory party in the fractious state that it is, minimising chaos can be the only way forward. A similar motivating force enabled Sunak’s election to be as swift and mercifully un-democratic as it proved. The party may be bereft of some of the titans of previous generations, but that knack for self-preservation endures. 

As does a slight whiff of the male, public school and oxbridge stereotype. The Guardian-reading wokerati were quick to point out that Mel Stride, Steve Barclay, Michael Gove, Mark Harper, Gavin Williamson all conform to a theme. 

Personally, I’ve no qualms with a government that doesn’t satisfy the diversity-botherers. After all, for all our faults, the Conservatives have already produced more female and ethnic minority PMs this year alone than Labour has done in their whole existence. We also prize diversity of thought, and little of that is to be found in the Opposition. 

Nevertheless, in putting Gove back at Levelling Up, or Barclay at Health, or Dominic Raab back as Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, Sunak was aiming to provide a sense of continuity. This is the Dallas-approach: hoping voters might accept that the six weeks of Truss were a bad dream, and that Sunak’s government is merely Johnson’s with a more market-friendly face. 

That explains why Sunak made so many references to the 2019 manifesto outside Downing Street and at his first Prime Minister’s Questions. The clamour is up for a general election. If he can prove the Government – hitherto distracted by bat flu, wars, and Tupperware – is delivering the mandate it already has calmly and effectively, that might diminish. 

Of course, the aforementioned circumstances mean that the political situation that confronts ministers is very different. Hunt remaining as Chancellor shows that Truss’s crunching economic U-turn will remain the fiscal bedrock of Sunak’s administration. Taxes will rise, spending will be cut, and no debt-fuelled dash for growth will re-emerge from Kwasi Kwarteng’s fever dreams any time soon. 

‘Boosterism’ is dead. But the 2019 agenda was quite big on spending: whether that was in keeping tax low, building new hospitals, hiring new police officers, or investing in infrastructure. Levelling up – whatever it means this week – will be harder, even in Michael Gove’s capable hands, and with only two years until the next election. 

That might explain two of the most eye-catching appointments of Sunak’s. Suella Braverman returns as Home Secretary having been sacked only a week ago. Kemi Badenoch gains the Equalities brief alongside her existing berth at International Trade. Both are favourites of the Tory party’s new GB News-wing: proponents of action on illegal migration and the culture wars. 

Sunak is sympathetic to this agenda. During the summer he made clear his anger about grooming scandals, his dislike of cancel culture, and his ambition to change how we take refugees. But he is also aware that the Red Wall-winning approach of the Nick Timothys and Dominic Cummingses of this world relies upon appealing to (to lapse into cliché) socially conservative former Labour voters. 

As such, Sunak hopes to compensate for the painful fiscal conservatism that the markets demand with a clear and effective strategy on the culture wars. We might finally see a government get tough on the ECHR, or consider repealing the Online Safety Bill. Or it might get overwhelmed by this winter’s omnicrisis in energy and the NHS, as Truss’s looked set to be. 

That is for tomorrow. In Sunak’s first 24 hours, he set out his approach to the next two years: an attempt to prove the Tories can be trusted with the economy and public services, to make your area better off, and to keep voters safe from both porous borders and the lunacy of the liberal establishment. A Red Wall-warrior lies behind that ‘sensible chap’ façade. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.