When Boris Johnson was asked at today’s Covid press conference whether he could rule out an imminent cabinet reshuffle, he didn’t give anything away. The Prime Minister joked that it was a question for the chief medical officer before avoiding offering an answer himself. While Johnson may take the view that the focus on a reshuffle was a distraction from his Covid winter plan announcement, it’s also the case that the constant rumours are starting to become a serious distraction for ministers, aides and civil servants.
Given the decision to hold a reshuffle is down to one person, predicting the timings of any such shake-up is a fool’s game. But there is once again feverish speculation that a reshuffle could take place this week — with several ministers, MPs and aides working on this basis. Decisions relating to party conference are being put off, civil servants are proving more resistant while ministers are making an extra effort to be visible in a bid to avoid the chop. While the regular refrain from Downing Street is that there are no imminent plans for one, the prospect of a reshuffle has successfully been weaponised by government whips to encourage MPs to vote with the government on Johnson’s tax rise plan both last week and tonight.
The thinking goes that Johnson considered a reshuffle ahead of the summer recess but any such plans had to be put on hold after he spent the final week of term in self-isolation. Therefore the next logical point to do it would be ahead of the conference recess which begins this week — meaning any ministers shown the door have time to process their sacking away from the Commons. As for what Johnson could get out of a reshuffle, he is likely to upset more people than he pleases. But a few good decisions could still leave him with a Downing Street and government better equipped for the difficult months ahead.
The Prime Minister has spoken in private about his desire for reform — and the need for strong reformers to deliver it. It’s a large part of the reason Michael Gove and Liz Truss are frequently tipped for promotion in regular reshuffle stories. A reshuffle could also — if done right — help Johnson tame his rebellious backbenchers. One of the problems the Prime Minister suffers from is the sheer number of former ministers on the backbenchers owing in part to how long the Tories have been in power and the shifts within the party in that period.
While nobody expects Johnson’s strongest critics to be offered a top job, he could signal a route back into to government to those who play their cards right by bringing a handful of former ministers back into the fold. In August, Johnson named Damian Hinds — the former education secretary who he sacked — as his new security minister. But Johnson allies feel too many MPs missed the importance of the announcement.
The last proper shake-up of Johnson’s top team took place in February 2020 after the general election but before the pandemic took over. It created many problems for the PM — particularly as a result of the junior ministerial appointments that left several older male MPs feeling cast aside. This put both Johnson and his chief whip off a reshuffle immediately after. But the constant speculation that one is imminent is now having a corrosive effect of its own — Johnson would be wise to either press on or rule one out entirely for the near future.
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