Many expected to wake up on Valentine’s Day to an entirely new Cabinet, an overhauled Civil Service and a conglomerate of departments. Instead, there were just seven changes to Cabinet. Nonetheless, the makeup of the new Cabinet and the not so subtle ‘power grab’ from No. 10 last week speaks volumes about the Prime Minister’s priorities and how he intends to govern going forward. And this year, he’s got his work cut out. Relations with the BBC, the UK’s position in trade talks following its Huawei decision, its place in global Britain following the Munich Security Conference and the UK’s role in tackling climate change (ahead of COP26 later this year) are just a few of the items on Boris’ agenda.
On the face of it, with the exception of the resignation of the former Chancellor, one could be forgiven for seeing it as a dull reshuffle. However, it’s actually quite substantial. Boris Johnson has effectively manoeuvred himself into a position as sole powerbroker – a bold move that will either prove to be very successful or completely disastrous with little in between.
People or Power?
Although losing ‘the Saj’ may not have been in Boris’ plan (apparently the meeting between the two actually started on a congratulatory note) – it must have been a consideration for both. Talks of tension between No. 10 and No. 11 (at least amongst Special Advisers) had been ongoing for months and a number of ‘leaks’ in recent weeks certainly didn’t ease growing frustrations.
Despite assurances that Sajid’s job was safe, Johnson failed to mention the caveats attached to it – namely handing over more power to Downing Street. Sajid Javid had been referred to as CHINO (Chancellor in Name Only) and the suggestion that his entire team would need to change was a clear indication that this moniker would not disappear anytime soon.
The New No. 10?
No. 11 has already been renamed “No. 10a”, which doesn’t bode well for his replacement – the loyal Brexiteer, Rishi Sunak. No. 10 now has firm control of the cheque book and this Government plans to spend, and spend big. When the Budget is delivered (date, it seems, is TBC) it’s likely to deviate considerably from the Budget Sajid worked on, at least in certain places. Although the Transport Secretary was keen to point out that the Budget would honour the party’s manifesto commitments, there were reports that Johnson had clashed with the former chancellor over spending restraints. One element that’s likely to go is a mansion tax (plans for which were leaked a couple of weeks ago – much to the annoyance of many Tory MPs).
Across the Water
Last week’s reshuffle wasn’t just a grab of spending power, it was about Boris maintaining absolute power. Perhaps that explains the rationale for one of the PM’s less popular decisions – the sacking of former Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith MP. He was considered a genuinely ‘good’ Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and well respected in Whitehall and across Ireland (which is no mean feat). For years, restoring power-sharing in Northern Ireland seemed hopeless…until Boris Johnson Julian Smith. Perhaps that was the very problem – Smith got the credit.
At least Julian Smith will be remembered for his success – not many of his predecessors can say that – and his successor, Brandon Lewis, will have his work cut out this year and beyond. He will be responsible for explaining how the Irish Protocol will be implemented (currently there are opposing views in Brussels and London), he will have to navigate legacy issues (included in the Stormont Deal) and for the first time in years, a border poll in the next five years is all the more likely (owing to Sinn Féin’s election success).
Make or Break
The Prime Minister has surrounded himself by a loyal (and, in some instances, weak) Cabinet, he’s combined the No. 10, No. 11 and Cabinet Office machines, and he’s sent a clear message to the Judiciary; he’s picked power over people. However, in doing this, he’s revealed his biggest weakness; a Prime Minister terrified of losing control, being undermined and, fundamentally, being replaced.
As commentators were quick to point out last week, the UK political system does not lend itself to power being held by one person (and his team). Johnson has either just hit a stroke of genius – safeguarding his position for at least the next five years or he’s embarked on a dangerous journey – leaving himself friendless and wholly accountable if things go wrong; only time will tell which it is.