Reshuffle reveals the shallowness of the Tory gene pool of talent

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<span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

Things were even worse than they seemed. Liz Truss was looking positively chipper on the frontbench ahead of prime minister’s questions. Someone in No 10 had told her she was in line for a promotion in the imminent reshuffle. Uselessness was clearly a highly prized commodity in a Boris Johnson government. No one could cut and paste an existing trade deal and rebrand it as a new one quite like Truss. Not least because she genuinely believed she had achieved something remarkable.

Priti Patel initially wasn’t looking quite so relaxed. But that was because she had taken Boris’s description of the Home Office turning the UK into the “Saudi Arabia of penal policy” as a sign the prime minister thought she was going soft on crime. It had taken some persuading from Rishi Sunak, who was sitting beside her, that Boris had actually intended the remarks as a compliment. “You’ll be fine,” the chancellor had said. “You can’t be any dimmer than the health secretary who thinks you can’t get Covid off your friends and the prime minister really values the fact that you are as vicious as you are useless.”

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It was the absences that were most telling. No Gavin “Private Pike” Williamson. No Robert “Honest Bob” Jenrick. No Dominic “Psycho” Raab. Telling Gavin to “go away and shut up” had proved rather more difficult than Boris had expected. Principally because Williamson had taken some convincing that he had been education secretary in the first place. Johnson had had to run through his achievements – his “transformational reforms” – in making everything with which he came in contact incomparably worse.

“So, you’re sacking me,” Gav had said eventually, before bursting into tears. “But what about all I did to help you become leader of the Tory party? Doesn’t that count for anything?”

“You’re even stupider than I thought you were,” Johnson replied. “The one thing everybody knows about me is that I invariably let people down. So surely you must have been expecting to get fired.”

Robert Buckland had just been collateral damage. Boris had asked Robert to come to his parliamentary office, expecting Jenrick to turn up. But once Buckland had walked through the door by mistake, it had seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. “No hard feelings, Robert,” Johnson had said, “but it would be quite useful to give your job to someone else. So though you’re not any worse than some of the deadbeats I’m keeping on and promoting, I’m going to have to ask you to clear your desk.”

Ten minutes later Boris had tracked down the right Robert and was giving Jenrick his marching orders. The housing secretary had initially been curious to know why he was getting dumped for just being hopeless when he could have been fired months ago for illegally approving a planning application that would have saved the ex-pornographer and Tory donor Dirty Des £45m. Johnson had merely shrugged. That’s the way he rolled. Jenrick could go back to being the nonentity he was born to be.

Getting Raab to move on from the Foreign Office had proved hardest of all. For some reason, Dom wasn’t that keen on being left up shit creek without a paddleboard. Especially when the sea was closed. The vein on his forehead throbbed. There would be several unidentified corpses found in the Thames in the coming days.

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“I can’t put it any clearer than this,” Boris had explained. “Tory MPs are furious about the way we handled the Afghanistan shambles and they want a scalp. So it’s either you or me who has got to take the blame. And after a nanosecond of thought, I’m here to tell you that you’ve drawn the short straw. But on the plus side, you will get demoted to justice secretary and be given the entirely meaningless title of deputy prime minister.”

Appointing the new cabinet ministers had been altogether more fun. Truss had been astonished to learn she was to be the new foreign secretary. Though not nearly as astonished as the rest of the country as she could barely place the UK on a map.

Michael Gove had needed to be warned to stay off the drugs and knuckle down as new housing secretary. “You’ll also be in charge of levelling up, whatever that is,” Boris had observed. In reply, the Govester had asked whether it was still OK to block affordable housing in his own constituency. As for Nadine Dorries as culture secretary, it had seemed like a good laugh at the time, but even Johnson was beginning to have second thoughts.

“The thing is,” said Carrie over a takeaway pizza in the No 10 flat later that evening, “you seem to have achieved the impossible. You’ve found people who are more spectacularly shit than Williamson and Raab and given them a job. Imagine a world where there is no one better to be transport secretary than Grant Shapps. The cabinet is in even worse shape now than it was this morning.”

Boris shrugged. He could only play the cards he had been dealt. The gene pool of talent in the Tory party was at an all-time low. After all, how else could someone like him become its leader? Still, there was one upside. Everyone was so focused on the reshuffle that they appeared to have forgotten that he had just had his arse handed to him on a plate by Keir Starmer at PMQs over universal credit. You win some, you lose some.

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