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Mid-term reshuffles are a pudding with several themes — boredom or just prime ministerial whim in decapitating loyalists to show a capacity for change. They are also about timing. Boris Johnson won a clinching vote on tax-raising to fund the NHS and social care last week and has the voting numbers on his side.
Crucially too, the PM is aware (courtesy of his highly political policy chief Munira Mirza) that his “levelling-up agenda” risks looking like a hollow proposition in northern and midlands seats come the next election. The pandemic can only be blamed for so long if opportunity and wealth do not spread faster.
And — as always with Johnson — there is a splinter of vengeful ice in the heart. It is vanishingly hard to find a 2016 Remainer in a prominent position in the Cabinet top tier. Yet some things have changed — more women in prominent roles for one thing, with Liz Truss the major winner as Foreign Secretary.
In Truss’s role as international trade secretary she put a brave face on some pretty skinny deals and did as much foreign travel as could be mustered in the Thatcher-memorial royal blue suit. A cheery ability to circumnavigate inconvenient facts has made her the perfect ambassadress for Brexit Britain. And she has the advantage of taking helm after the demotion of accident-prone Dominic Raab, who lands hard after the Afghanistan debacle at the Ministry of Justice and a pandemic courts backlog to figure out. Out too goes Gavin Williamson (assisted by a spectacular foot-in-mouth interview with this newspaper).
Michael Gove is always the unpredictable knight on the chess board. His move from the Cabinet Office clearing house to Housing Secretary — an important job in the levelling-up and intergenerational policy agenda — continues Boris’s tradition of giving his closest frenemy tough gigs requiring long hours, but without the big offices of state or a nice house attached.
He now also spearheads a “cross-department levelling-up agenda”, which sounds like something the hapless Nicola Murray would get landed with in the BBC’s The Thick of It. In the small print, he is also supposed to ward off Scottish independence — which might yet turn out to be more important than a lot of other ephemera.
The “bloody hell, what?” appointment award goes to Nadine Dorries, who arrives at the brief of Digital, Culture, Media and (sometimes) Sport. Dorries is a tough graduate of I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here: an anti-Wokester who will inherit the task of nailing down a BBC licence settlement which will not alienate middle England but show Tory steel — and seek to push Channel 4 privatisation across the line.
The reconfiguration is a sign of Johnson moving into the “post-Dom” Political universe — sidelining some of the prominent figures from the referendum (Raab and Wiliamson) — and, doubtless with the nudging of Carrie, bringing more female faces to the fore in the Truss and Dorries appointments.
To the chagrin of Labour, Dorries, Oliver Dowden (the new party chairman) and Truss are all comprehensive school products. The charge of the Tories being the part of the southern poshly-educated is waning fast. Steadily, a flailing Labour is being pushed back into the territory of urban progressives and Remain pockets of the South-East — insufficient for election victory. Dowden has just enjoined the party to start on the task. And that is really the point: a fizzing display of shock, awe and loyalists discarded in favour of the next ones and another term of Boris.