Following reports over the weekend that Boris Johnson has threatened to demote Rishi Sunak to health secretary, Downing Street has today sought to downplay reports of a rift between the pair. After business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng used the morning media round to praise the Chancellor’s work, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson has insisted that Johnson has full confidence in Sunak. While it’s clear both sides are keen to kill reports of tension, they are unlikely to have their wish granted. What’s more, the comments have brought back speculation over a potential reshuffle.
As a general rule, all cabinet reshuffle speculation ought to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt. The Prime Minister has proved rather reluctant to reshuffle his top team previously — the last big shake-up of the frontbench was February 2020 when Sajid Javid quit as chancellor and Sunak was brought in. That reshuffle did little for party morale — with many MPs left feeling overlooked — and has been enough to put the chief whip off repeating the exercise anytime soon.
Yet there have been hints of late that the Prime Minister may be warming to the idea. As well as openly talking about moving Sunak, Fraser has reported whispers that Johnson was actually planning an end of term summer reshuffle before the pingdemic meant he had to spend the last week before recess in self isolation. It’s part of the reason that Johnson allies believe that despite talk of no reshuffle until next year, there is a chance he moves to shake up his team this autumn.
What would be the purpose of such a reshuffle? As I reported earlier this month, as the pandemic eases Johnson is turning his attention to domestic reform. With the next election two to three years away, allies spy an opportunity to refresh the team in order to push reform through. The thinking goes that civil servants are much harder to corral when they believe a secretary of state is on the way out. It’s also the case that ministers need time to get to grips with their department — while still allowing the Prime Minister the option of a pre-election reshuffle to give the impression of a revitalised new-look government.
As for the likely changes, the Mail tips Michael Gove to replace Priti Patel as home secretary if the Channel migrant crisis continues to grow. Either way, it’s very likely Gove will be moved from the Cabinet Office — where colleagues complain he has an octopus-like tendency to delve into their business — to a single department. Johnson also views International trade secretary Liz Truss as someone whose stock is high and who is a reformer. She has been touted as a successor to Sunak in the Treasury — however, it will still be a shock move for Sunak to actually be moved.
If Johnson does reshuffle his frontbench, he will be under pressure to deliver on promises of promotion — such as to Anne-Marie Trevelyan who was told she would return to cabinet when International Development was folded into the Foreign Office. This means there will have to be some sackings — something Johnson has been reluctant to do much of since winning a majority of 80.
It’s likely education secretary Gavin Williamson will face more negative press this week with the arrival of A-level results. Yet while few expect Johnson to keep him in his current role indefinitely, he could be moved to a new role such as Leader of the House — suited to his skills as a former prime minister’s PPS and chief whip — rather than sent to the back benches. The latest ConservativeHome cabinet league table pointed to the ministers with the lowest approval ratings among party members. Alongside Williamson, the two other ministers with personal approval ratings lower than Johnson’s are party chairman Amanda Milling and Robert Jenrick.
Given the Prime Minister already has a hard time pushing through his agenda with a large majority, he will need to tread carefully so as to avoid adding too many more to the current group of scorned former ministers who regularly rebel against his plans. But there’s also another reason he may opt for caution on potential sackings. If Johnson were to oust the three ministers more unpopular than him, it would risk leaving him at the bottom of the pile.
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