February 14, 2020
The Reshuffle: A new Cabinet for post-Brexit BritainContact
Two months after a resounding Election victory, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled a new-look Cabinet to drive the Government’s post-Brexit domestic and Global Britain agenda. Post-election reshuffles give the PM a chance to set the narrative and give us insight into their priorities for the new term. While rumours had swirled of significant structural change, in reality (with one or two exceptions) this is not too dissimilar from what was being whispered around the corridors of SW1 in the past fortnight. Ultimately, a perhaps controversially, this reshuffle is everything a buoyed PM wants it to be, a demonstration that power and authority rests with Downing Street.
The biggest – and most unexpected – change was Sajid Javid resigning rather than becoming a lame duck Chancellor in a war over Special Advisers. This makes Javid one of the few members of an unenviable club: A Chancellor who never delivered a Budget and the shortest-serving Chancellor in 40-odd years.
Some might suggest this was a sign of a Cabinet reshuffle not going to plan a la Theresa May in 2018. But, there’s an argument to be made this was part of Senior Adviser Dominic Cummings’ plan all along; you back Javid into a corner and roll the dice on what his next move is. Either way, you have a severely weakened Chancellor who’ll do what you want, or you get to appoint a new Chancellor who’ll do what you want (for the time being).
While some of the loud(er) voices have gone, it’s worth noting that Cabinet itself is also just that little bit smaller now. Before the reshuffle there were quite a few ‘also attending Cabinet’ Ministers of State; this has now been reduced to the (more traditional) Leader of the House, the Whip, the Attorney-General and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Many will argue this can only be a good thing for decision making true Cabinet Government.
The other key takeaway from all of this is that it’s not just a reshuffle of people who carry red boxes but also of Special Advisers. With Javid having resigned over the right to choose his own SpAds and suggestions another Minister bucked and sacked one of his key advisers to keep his seat around the table, we can expect to hear more rumours early next week about who, amongst the politicos, is staying, who’s reshuffling and who’s leaving.
Business, Industry and the Economy
New Chancellor Rishi Sunak is seen as a rising star by Number 10, considered a safe set of hands and represented the PM several times in televised debates during the Election. Having first joined Cabinet in July last year, he was tipped for promotion, but nobody foresaw him becoming Chancellor. This is a big step up for a man whose political trajectory has continued an upward trend since his election in 2015; with his first Budget only a month away (in theory), he has a significant task ahead of him. One of Sunak’s key priorities – other than the Budget – will be to deliver on the Government’s commitments to level up the disparity between the South East and the North; this is expected to include big infrastructure commitments and a renewed focus on economic prosperity.
Sunak, alongside new Business Secretary Alok Sharma and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay, will have to move quickly to settle nerves in the City and key industry groups such as the CBI as rumours abound the Government will abandon Manifesto commitments and turn on the spending taps to boost growth.
Liz Truss staying in post at International Trade will give certainty to British businesses looking to trade outside the European Union. Free trade is key to the Government’s Global Britain vision and Truss, Sharma and Barclay, will have a key role in ensuring this comes to fruition through Free Trade Agreements and Free Ports. She’s joined at International Trade by returning Minister Greg Hands – respected and liked across Government. Hands, who resigned as a Trade Minister to oppose Heathrow expansion, is a strong and vocal advocate of free trade and played a key role in the Alternative Arrangements Commission to find an alternative to the backstop and help try and secure a Brexit deal.
Transport and Infrastructure
While Transport Secretary Grant Shapps remains in post, he has a new team of Ministers around him with George Freeman and Nus Ghani sacked from their respective jobs. Former Foreign Office and International Trade Minister Andrew Stephenson joins Shapps at the Department for Transport. Representing a North West constituency in Lancashire, and serving as Rail Minister, there will be an expectation that Stephenson will use his new gig to start ‘levelling’ up rail services in the North. Chris Heaton-Harris stays with DfT.
Energy and the Environment
The PM said 2020 would be the year of climate action and the next Budget – the first since the UK’s legally binding Net-Zero commitment – is expected to contain a raft of energy efficiency measures; the challenge of delivering on this falls to new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma. The UK will host this year’s Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, COP26, with Sharma also gaining the key role of President.
Sharma’s previous job as International Development Secretary means he has some international and diplomatic creds, something some felt was lacking in his predecessor, which will be critical to success in Glasgow. His voting record on climate and environmental issues could be described as patchy and he’s gone from being opposed to Heathrow expansion on environmental grounds to supportive on economic grounds. That said, he’s used his platform on the world stage in recent months to champion action on the climate crisis and call for action to assist developing countries. Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng stays in place, though no longer attends Cabinet.
George Eustice takes on the politically charged Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at a crucial time with fishing quotas set to be a key topic in free trade negotiations with the European Union. Top of his in tray will be the Environment Bill and Agriculture Bill. A farmer himself, Eustice’s move will go a long way to sending a message to that sector they have the Government’s ear. Victoria Prentis joins the Government as a junior DEFRA Minister. While there isn’t word on her portfolio responsibilities (yet), having grown up on her family farm, Prentis is passionate about agriculture. She’s also passionate about the environment and reducing waste; she’s helped organise the Great British Spring Clean as part of her role on the Keep Britain Tidy APPG, gives up plastic for Lent, and is a member of the Conservative Environment Network’s Parliamentary Caucus.
With the Government making legally binding funding commitments to the NHS a key part of its re-election platform, the PM has kept Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock in place. In its manifesto, the Government committed to finding a solution to social care, a challenge that has plagued Governments of all colours and persuasions for many years. Set to lead the Government’s work in this space is another rising star from the 2015 intake, Helen Whately who moves up from Arts and Tourism Minister to Minister of State for Social Care. The big challenge is going to be getting political consensus on a charged and fraught issue and providing, at the very least, a timeline for reform to a sector who’s been calling for action for years.
The UK now has its tenth Housing Minister in ten years. Esther McVey joins the long list of former Housing Ministers with former Whip and Foreign Office Minister Christopher Pincher coming across to MHCLG. His challenge is to get across his brief quickly – the housing and construction sector have seen a revolving door of Ministers who short tenure has made it difficult for them to make an impact. Politically, the Government needs someone who can get their head around and immediately begin to address the vagaries of housing policy and the varied challenges across the country. In the past, he’s argued for the need for more small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain to boost construction efficiency and has called on the Government to encourage big developers to franchise some of their land banks to small developers. Tt’s not just green belt development questions he’ll have to grapple with; in addition to meeting the needs of first time buyers (and those who want to be first time buyers), Pincher will also need to work cross-Government with his colleagues around empty nesters who are downsizing and retirement living.
Johnson ally and former Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry has left Government after being offered, and declining, a role in the Foreign Office; having been in the role, Berry (in his own words) took the Northern Powerhouse from a concept to the Cabinet table. His passion for the role was clear and his successor Minister Simon Clarke (equally passionate) has a big job ahead of him. Without a seat at the Cabinet table and an expanded brief around devolution more broadly, this will be something to watch and Clarke’s challenge will be to send a message this isn’t just a soundbite and box ticking, that the Government is absolutely committed to levelling up the North and delivering economic growth and prosperity to the region.