Aubrey Allegretti Political correspondent
Tue, 25 October 2022 at 10:20 pm
Rishi Sunak has opted for a somewhat cautious cabinet reshuffle, appointing a handful of key allies while trying to splice together the top teams of his two predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, in an effort to hold the Conservative party together.
The finished product probably does not resemble the cabinet he would have liked to form, nor the one with which he would hope to lead the Tories into the next general election – but it has done the job insofar as it just slightly ruffles most MPs’ feathers rather than alienates a whole wing of the party.
In the end, there were 11 cabinet departures – a mixture of sackings, resignations and one demotion, so by any standard it cannot have been described as too timid.
And Sunak has shown some bravery in keeping Ben Wallace as defence secretary and bringing Suella Braverman back as home secretary, as well as letting Gavin Williamson rejoin the government.
The former may have seemed obvious given Sunak has said he wants to ensure support for Ukraine is maintained. But it has been made clear that Wallace expects the new prime minister to uphold a promise for defence spending to rise to 3% of GDP by the end of the decade.
Sunak has notably not made that commitment, and Wallace has staked his job on the pledge being delivered, so staying in post means he is holding the new prime minister’s feet to the fire.
The return of Braverman is a bold choice, given she was forced to stand down less than a week ago for breaching the ministerial code by sharing sensitive cabinet information on a personal phone with a fellow MP.
Not only is Braverman likely to maintain a tough line on immigration, which could torpedo the chances of an India trade deal and rule out relaxing foreign worker rules to help boost economic growth, but the appointment threatens to undermine a key pledge made in Sunak’s first speech as prime minister.
“That appointment is borderline breaking the spirit of his pledge to restore integrity,” said one unhappy MP. “She should have been on the sidelines for a bit and then moved back in a lower position – not back within six days.”
Another sighed that Braverman was “hardly one of the sensibles, but he had to make entreaties to that side of the party”.
Williamson’s appointment came late in the day, and sparked fears that the wheels had begun to fall off the reshuffle. “Rishi was doing so well until about 5pm,” said one senior MP, who lamented that “it’s becoming a jobs for friends reshuffle” that was “neither unifying nor clever”.
Another said Williamson was “part of the dirt we’re trying to clean up” and would “upset and cause anger with many Tory backbenchers”. A third called it “Rishi’s biggest mistake yet”.
Sacking key Truss allies such as Wendy Morton, Chloe Smith and Ranil Jayawardena will cause little upset in the party, and is offset by the retention of the former deputy prime minister Thérèse Coffey, albeit via a demotion to environment secretary.
But some MPs are nervous that the ejection of Simon Clarke and Jake Berry means there are no remaining strong voices prepared to stick up for the “red wall”, with the cabinet now overwhelmingly dominated by MPs representing home county constituencies.
Triumphant returns for Dominic Raab, Oliver Dowden, Michael Gove and Grant Shapps, along with the propelling into cabinet of Sunak’s former campaign manager Mel Stride, have not rattled too many in the party.
Neither has there been a great fuss from supporters of Penny Mordaunt, who tried desperately to challenge a Sunak coronation and instead turn the leadership process into a contest, infuriating many colleagues.
Her portrait released by Downing Street announcing she would remain as Commons leader, instead of getting the coveted role of foreign secretary she had pushed for, betrayed her disappointment.
Reshuffles often mean creating enemies on the backbenches, and while many of those who are retiring to them will probably go quietly – at least for now – there may be one thorn that remains in Sunak’s side.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who quit as business secretary, ominously opined with glee from the backbenches in the Commons chamber barely an hour after leaving the government.
“May I say what a pleasure it is that normal service can be resumed and that I am now able to speak slightly more freely than I may have done when I sat in a different place,” he said.
The new cabinet may look much like the old ones, and having a cast of trusted characters to steady the ship – including the incumbent chancellor, Jeremy Hunt – is designed to steady nerves in the City and bring the temperature in the party down from boiling point.
However, further danger for Sunak lies farther down the ministerial ladder, with more junior appointments expected to be announced on Wednesday.
“So many people who never ought to have been made ministers were this year, so there’s an awful lot of people who think they deserve to remain one,” said one government source.
If Sunak ends up rewarding too many of his supporters at the lower ministerial levels, he could yet see a carefully crafted peace blow up in his face.