Boris Johnson’s reshuffle was high noon for ministers who fell short of expectations

·9-min read
Dominic Raab's demotion was seen as the biggest story of the reshuffle, with the former foreign secretary being criticised over his handling of the Afghanistan crisis - Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Dominic Raab's demotion was seen as the biggest story of the reshuffle, with the former foreign secretary being criticised over his handling of the Afghanistan crisis - Victoria Jones/PA Wire

After weeks of rampant speculation, it was just before midday that word finally reached the Cabinet: the reshuffle was on.

The rumours began to circulate among political journalists shortly after 9am, with government officials signalling that Boris Johnson was preparing to rejig his top team after Prime Minister’s Questions.

A non-denial from Downing Street followed soon after, prompting ministers across Whitehall to begin cancelling meetings and clearing their diaries.

At 11.30am, one Cabinet minister, glued to their mobile phone, was overheard asking: “They’re saying it’s on? Is it on? People are saying it’s on.”

Half an hour later, Number 10 gave them their answer, with a senior source confirming that the frontbench would be revamped as Mr Johnson seeks to pivot away from the pandemic and on to his “levelling up” agenda.

The reshuffle began, as is custom, with the culling of ministers deemed surplus to requirements.

First up was Amanda Milling, the Conservative Party co-chairman, who was seen entering Mr Johnson’s parliamentary office shortly after 1pm, before leaving shortly afterwards reportedly looking “miserable”.

A former whip, Ms Milling’s reputation as a “number cruncher” appeared to make her ideally suited for heading up election campaigning.

But since chalking up a major victory in the Hartlepool by-election, a number of Tory MPs have pointed the finger at her for failing to clinch Batley and Spen, another key Red Wall seat, and for not foreseeing the party’s disastrous defeat in Chesham and Amersham to the Liberal Democrats.

She was recalled late on Wednesday evening to serve as a junior foreign office minister.

She was followed by Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary and the youngest member of Mr Johnson’s Cabinet, who was last year embroiled in controversy involving Richard Desmond and a luxury housing scheme.

His failure to quell a major Tory rebellion over the Government’s planning reforms, a key priority for Mr Johnson, is likely to have proven the final nail in the coffin.

Next up was Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, whose departure was widely anticipated following his presiding over last year’s exams fiasco, widespread frustration among school leaders over his handling of the pandemic, and a perceived failure to stand up to the teaching unions.

His sacking seemed inevitable after he last week wrongly claimed to have held a meeting with Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United and England footballer, when in fact he had been speaking to Maro Itoje, the England rugby player.

Reports that Mr Williamson gave a leaving speech in the Department for Education on Wednesday morning suggests that he even he had accepted the game was up.

“I’m not sure even Gavin Williamson is surprised he’s been moved in this reshuffle,” said Justine Greening, one of Mr Williamson’s Tory predecessors, on hearing the news.

Gavin Williamson’s departure was widely anticipated over his presiding over last year’s exams fiasco - Rob Pinney/Getty Images
Gavin Williamson’s departure was widely anticipated over his presiding over last year’s exams fiasco - Rob Pinney/Getty Images

The fourth sacking of the day proved far more controversial, with Robert Buckland confirming his departure as Justice Secretary shortly before 2pm.

Considered “steadfastly loyal” to Mr Johnson, his departure was swiftly condemned by several Tory MPs, with Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the Commons justice select committee, describing his treatment as “unjust” and “outrageous”.

“I think we all expected Gavin Williamson to go, Robert Jenrick was not a surprise, but I feel desperately sorry for Robert,” said another.

Privately, his allies suspected that he had been sacrificed in order to make room for a Tory “big beast”.

Confirmation that a major demotion was in train came minutes later, when Dominic Raab was spotted heading towards the Prime Minister’s office.

Having faced widespread criticism over his handling of the Afghanistan crisis, and his decision to remain on holiday as Kabul fell to the Taliban, the Foreign Secretary would have known that those summoned first are those in line for bad news.

What ensued in the minutes that followed, according to multiple sources, was a tense stand-off in which Mr Raab refused to accept a direct demotion.

With time dragging on, the Prime Minister was forced to postpone the talks in order to head over to Downing Street to begin announcing appointments to his new-look Cabinet.

Liz Truss replaced Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary - Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Liz Truss replaced Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary - Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

He was snuck out of Parliament via the exit at Victoria Tower in order to avoid journalists lurking nearby.

But by this time, news of the row had already spread across Westminster, while down the road officials in Mr Raab’s own department had begun to receive updates informing them that Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, was due to replace him as Foreign Secretary.

Reports of Jack Doyle, Mr Johnson’s director of communications, being bundled into a car with Robert Oxley, Mr Raab’s special adviser, confirmed suspicions that the matter was unresolved.

With speculation reaching fever pitch, Mr Raab made his way up the road to Number 10 at 3.10pm, where he was hit by a wall of questions from journalists standing nearby.

Amid the din, one photographer could be heard shouting: “More time for holidays, Mr Raab?” an apparent reference to his decision to remain on holiday as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

Ten minutes after entering the front door, Mr Raab exited, feigning what can at best be described as a toothy smile, with Downing Street confirming his demotion to Justice Secretary moments later.

In an apparent bid to sweeten the pill, he has also been upgraded from the First Secretary of State to Deputy Prime Minister. He is the first minister to hold the title since Nick Clegg formed a coalition with David Cameron.

As the axe stopped swinging, the promotions and sideways shuffles then came thick and fast.

Priti Patel kept her place as Home Secretary - Reuters/Hannah McKay
Priti Patel kept her place as Home Secretary - Reuters/Hannah McKay

Both Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak were reconfirmed as Home Secretary and Chancellor respectively, while Ms Truss followed them into Number 10 to claim the newly vacated post of Foreign Secretary.

Her promotion means that two of the four Great Offices of State are now occupied by women.

Having delivered a string of positive news stories about post-Brexit trade deals amid the doom and gloom of Covid-19, Ms Truss has soared in popularity among Tory members and has made no secret of her desire to claim the post.

Her ambitions were matched equally by Michael Gove, who was widely expected to be rewarded for his efforts in the Cabinet Office co-ordinating the Government’s handling of Brexit and Covid-19.

Said by allies to be “bored” and in need of a “new challenge’’, Mr Gove has for weeks been privately discussing a move to the Home Office, where he hoped to get to grips with the migrant boat crisis.

However, with Mr Johnson facing an uphill battle to deliver his manifesto pledge of 300,000 new homes a year, he has instead been entrusted with salvaging the upcoming planning Bill as Housing Secretary.

Friends also pointed out on Wednesday that Mr Gove had retained responsibility for the Union and tackling the spectre of Scottish independence, as well as being charged with giving meaning to the Prime Minister’s flagship “levelling up” agenda.

He was replaced as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster by Steve Barclay, whose departure as Chief Secretary of the Treasury just weeks before the comprehensive spending review and Budget are due to take place is likely to pose a major headache for the Chancellor.

Looking surprised, Nadine Dorries takes on the mantle of Culture Secretary - Julian Simmonds for The Telegraph
Looking surprised, Nadine Dorries takes on the mantle of Culture Secretary - Julian Simmonds for The Telegraph

Promotions followed for Nadine Dorries, who moved from Health Minister to become the new Culture Secretary, replacing Oliver Dowden, who is the new party chairman. A former staffer in the Conservative research department and deputy chief of staff to David Cameron, Mr Dowden has considerable experience of the party machinery.

Nadhim Zahawi, who has fast become a backbench favourite for his work as vaccines minister, has also been rewarded with the post of Education Secretary.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was forced to take a more junior business post after her old role as Aid Secretary was mothballed last year, returned to the Cabinet as Trade Secretary.

As the day wore on, Mr Johnson turned to continuity.

Only appointed three months ago, Sajid Javid retained his role as Health Secretary; as did Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary; Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary; Lord Frost, the Brexit Minister; George Eustice, the Environment Secretary; Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary; Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons; Mark Spencer, the Chief Whip; Therese Coffey, the Pensions Secretary; and Alok Sharma, the President of Cop26.

Brandon Lewis, Alister Jack and Simon Hart also remain in their roles as Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Alive to allegations that his Cabinet has been too "male and pale", Mr Johnson's team now comprises six female Cabinet ministers, up from 22 per cent to 26 per cent, with more women expected to be promoted to junior roles on Thursday.

The number of ethnic minorities in Cabinet has also risen from five to six following Mr Zahawi's elevation.

Cabinet ministers ‘will be looking over their shoulders’

However, with rumours of an imminent reshuffle having come and gone in recent weeks, the scale of Mr Johnson’s changes has caught many Tory MPs by surprise.

So too has the timing, with more than half a dozen top-tier changes coming just days before the Prime Minister is expected to depart for New York for the United Nations General Assembly.

It also comes just weeks before the Conservative party conference, when Cabinet ministers are required to deliver keynote speeches to the party faithful setting out the priorities for their departments.

But for others, the reshuffle was seen as both timely and necessary, with one minister arguing there was a need to open up space for young and ambitious MPs, with many of the 2019 intake already becoming “restless” and “rebellious”.

“It was long overdue and should have been done some considerable time ago,” a senior Tory MP added. “At least now the new appointments will be able to strut their stuff at conference.”

Perhaps most importantly for Mr Johnson, the decision shattered the growing belief among some backbenchers that he was prepared to tolerate incompetence so long as ministers remained loyal to him.

“He’s proved his doubters who say he’s indecisive wrong,” a Whitehall source said. “Cabinet ministers will now be looking over their shoulders.”

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