Restructure or reshuffle?

10 February 2020

DRD Analyst Ross Ewing shares his predictions on the upcoming reshuffle. 

Boris Johnson will stamp his authority on his government and provide a glimpse into the future of his premiership when he reshuffles his ministers this week. The Prime Minister is not a man afraid of change: when he took office, no less than 18 of Theresa May’s 29 Cabinet ministers were given the boot.

On the back of his thumping General Election win in December, Boris Johnson can hire or fire whoever he likes. That said, it looks like there won’t be a fundamental reorganisation of government masterminded by Johnson and his senior adviser, the notorious Dominic Cummings just yet.

Cummings’s blog posts have often ruminated on creating ‘super-ministries’ which would amalgamate several government departments and reduce the size of Cabinet. But it would seem that this total reorganisation of Whitehall has been put on ice – at least until the spending review in the Autumn.

Step-change

The Prime Minister will want to use the reshuffle as a step-change for his government. In recent weeks, his Downing Street operation has not been as slick as he would like. Picking fights with the press lobby, supporting – then not supporting – Big Ben ‘bonging’ for Brexit, ministerial leaks and in-fighting have dominated the media recently. His government’s strategy and policy priorities have not cut through as a result.

Uniting the party, focusing on the Midlands and the North, and having the right talent in the right department, will be the PM’s objectives– but public perception of the changes will be crucial too.

Boris’s woman problem

Downing Street knows it would not be a good look if as many as five women from the Cabinet are replaced by five men, yet Andrea Leadsom, Thérèse Coffey, Liz Truss, Theresa Villiers and Baroness Morgan are all touted for the chop.

But several female junior ministers could be in line for promotion, namely Lucy Fraser, Caroline Dineage and Victoria Atkins – and don’t rule out Penny Mordaunt making her return. The former defence secretary is widely respected and would signify a uniting of the parliamentary Conservative party after a bruising leadership election last summer.

Restructure?

Although there isn’t expected to be a total restructure, DFID and DCMS could follow DEXEU and be folded into another (probably rebranded) government department. Nicky Morgan remaining Secretary of State at DCMS whilst stepping down as an MP and becoming a Peer is probably a clue as to the fate of her department.

Incorporating DFID into the FCO might be trickier for the Prime Minister. He has the authority to combine the departments, but there is significant unrest on the Tory backbenches about doing so. Lots of new, younger Tory MPs are vocal supporters of the 0.7% aid commitment and the good work DFID has done as a standalone department across the world. Folding DFID into the FCO could be seen as a sign of the UK retreating from the world stage – the opposite of what Johnson wants.

But Boris Johnson, as a former foreign secretary, knows that the Foreign Office has diminishing authority and power. The role may be one of the great offices of state with the perks of Chevening and 1 Carlton Gardens but the FCO has presided over cuts to our global diplomatic service and lost the aid budget and international trade brief too. Although unlikely to happen this week, a merging of the FCO, DFID and DIT in the Autumn is very possible.

Brexit

The Prime Minister describes himself as a ‘One Nation’ Conservative and he needn’t pander to any particular wing or faction of his backbenches.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Geoffrey Cox and Esther McVey could all be reshuffled out of Cabinet as Johnson no longer needs to keep the arch-Brexiteers on side. The PM wants the government to move on from Brexit completely, even going so far as to ban the words ‘Brexit’ and ‘no-deal’ from government speeches and documents.

Promoting fresh faces who are not deeply wedded to either side of the Brexit debate could be a strong sign that this government is committed to getting past Brexit and focusing on the national agenda.

Midlands and the North

That agenda will be one that speaks to the Midlands and the North of England. The reshuffle is an opportunity for Johnson to display this commitment by promoting Northern MPs to senior Cabinet posts. He will want to ensure the focus of policy-making is on addressing the needs of those newly Conservative constituencies that propelled the party to a strong majority in 2019. Jake Berry, Nigel Adams and Rishi Sunak are all northern MPs tipped for promotion.

One Cabinet minister who is expected to keep his place is the Chancellor, Sajid Javid. There has been friction between No.10 and No.11 as Javid and Cummings jostle for the Prime Minister’s ear. Early signs are that the Chancellor is winning that battle. This divide could become a running theme within Johnsons cabinet.

It’s all about perception…

The radical reform of government remains the ultimate goal but do not expect it this week. The Prime Minister knows that the Whitehall machine is under immense pressure. The renegotiation with the EU and domestic changes to cope with that transition make a major restructure incredibly tricky at the moment.

Seismic change will no doubt be a feature of Johnson’s premiership but, for now, public perception and personality politics are the priority.

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