When it comes to Cabinet reshuffles, most politicians are well versed in the day’s proceedings. An anxious wait, a scurry to Number 10, a forced smile to the press – regardless of a promotion, demotion, or full-blown defenestration. As some ministers wait to know their fate, few would have woken up this morning and accurately guessed how the day would unfold. Before most had the chance to make a cup of coffee, Rishi Sunak had already rolled the dice on one of the greatest political gambles we’ve seen in recent years.
Westminster has been awash with reshuffle rumours since party conference season. With the Conservatives trailing heavily in the polls – and key events such as the Autumn Statement fast approaching – there was little doubt that Sunak would reshuffle his top team to prepare for the impending general election and once again attempt to reset his fortunes. Plus, with Suella Braverman’s controversial article in The Times critiquing the police without Number 10 approval, the Prime Minister seized his opportunity to stamp his authority on the government machine.
Braverman’s sacking would have no doubt stolen today’s broadsheet headlines if it weren’t for Sunak’s “dead cat strategy” – a Cabinet appointment leaving SW1 in total shock. Enter the stage – David Cameron. The former Prime Minister was this morning created a life peer in order to take up the position of Foreign Secretary, in an attempt to reclaim the centre ground from Labour.
The reshuffle of the great offices of state also raises serious policy dilemmas. The new Home Secretary, James Cleverly has publicly lobbied against Braverman’s decision to place 1,700 asylum seekers on the former RAF Wethersfield, a decision which will now fall under his remit – leaving the Government’s immigration policy here in a somewhat grey area. Meanwhile, only five weeks ago, Cameron was scathing in his criticism of Sunak’s decision to scrap HS2. Coupled with his own premiership denoting a period of closer ties between the UK and China – in stark contrast to this Government’s current position – most will watch with wonder as to how the Government will dutifully line up behind Sunak’s vision and reconcile its differences.
Elsewhere, Liz Truss’ ally and former Deputy Prime Minister Thérèse Coffey has been dismissed as Environment Secretary, while Conservative rising star Laura Trott has been appointed Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Victoria Atkins will be tasked with attempting to cut NHS waiting lists in her new position as Health Secretary, with Steve Barclay taking on the top job at DEFRA. This reshuffle has so far been characterised by bringing Sunak’s friends and allies closer into the tent, while promoting fresh faces that will likely play well in the pre-election media rounds.
As the week continues, we will expect to see further changes at the junior ministerial level. That said, we’ve already had multiple resignations from those who aren’t contesting the next general election– veteran Schools Minister Nick Gibb has left the DfE while Colchester MP Will Quince has stepped down as Minister of State for Health, having announced in the summer his intention not to seek re-election. For others, it presents the chance to refocus their attention onto an electoral footing, doubling down efforts to shore up their slim constituency majorities.
But there will be little chance to dwell on the changes that are being made. Next week’s Autumn Statement will bring home to ministers the challenging fiscal framework they now must work in – and while Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is safe for now, he will be fully aware his day of judgement will come next Wednesday at the despatch box.
The show must go on. Nervous waits will continue, while a few glasses will be raised in quiet celebration amongst those who have climbed the greasy pole. Yet few things in politics are certain – David Cameron’s return emphasises that political destinies are never straight forward, and the stage is constantly set for a triumphant encore, or a crippling opening night.
Authored by Ed Lavelle, Senior Account Manager, Public Affairs