19 September 2021

Weekly Briefing: A reorganisation, not a revolution


The beauty of a reshuffle is a Prime Minister can do many things at once; demote and sideline, promote and bring into the limelight. This week’s effort was, however, a pretty restrained affair. Only a handful of ministers departed and there wasn’t a huge injection of new blood from the most recent intake of 2019 MPs. This was a reorganisation, not a revolution.

This week was also a reminder of how outmoded the ‘great offices of state’(PM, Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary) designation has become.  Not that those aren’t among the top jobs, of course, but you could certainly add Health and Education to the list. And, with his responsibility for the Union, ‘Levelling Up’ and housing, Michael Gove takes charge of one of the most important government departments. The fact he has never held one of the ‘great’ jobs feels pretty irrelevant.

There was a not too subtle brief from 10 Downing St about Johnson giving his new team a ‘half-time pep talk’ – as firm an indication as we’ve had that an election will come in 2023. If that is the case, one of the things on his side will be a certain freshness of personnel. Only three members of David Cameron’s first all-Tory Cabinet – Truss, Gove and Sajid Javid – are still at the top table. The Conservatives may have been in government since 2010, but Gove is the only current Cabinet minister who has been there from start to finish (a year’s hiatus aside).

The fact that Whitehall’s Mr Fix It has been put in charge of housing was one of the more exciting moments for market liberals. If anyone can plough through the vested interests and get some darn houses built, surely it’s the man who took on the education unions and won. Well, maybe. If we are two years out from an election, it’s more likely that he’s been sent to strike as delicate a balance as possible between liberalisation and not winding up restive Conservative backbenchers.

Elsewhere, bringing the always punchy Nadine Dorries into Cabinet suggests Boris Johnson has not lost his appetite for a few culture war scraps when the going is good. An almighty red herring of an announcement on reintroducing imperial measurements shows his talent for tickling supporters’ tummies while driving opponents absolutely bonkers remains undimmed.

But while this week has been widely viewed as a triumph of Johnson’s personal power, shifting colleagues around with impunity and building a team in his own image, few would envy the task in front of him.

The coming winter looks particularly grim, with warnings of a spike not just in Covid cases, but also in energy prices thanks to a squeeze on natural gas supply. The combination of rammed hospitals, higher household bills and supply chain problems really would be a cocktail of woe, even for this most ebullient of politicians. More to the point, all of those problems are just the tips of much bigger icebergs – huge NHS waiting lists, the Net Zero transition and labour shortages – which will take many years to resolve.

Still, judging by the state of the Labour Party, the one thing Johnson and his team have on their side is time.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.