No self-respecting chancellor would accept such terms: that was Sajid Javid’s reason for resigning. So in Rishi Sunak we have an alarmingly obedient new chancellor ready to take the job on any terms. His advisers will be fused with those of No 10, his power base diminished, and his office under the control of Dominic Cummings, intimidator-in-chief. Sunak will struggle to shake off shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s charge that he is nothing but “a stooge”.
Demanding the heads of Javid’s advisers can have only been a deliberate provocation on Boris Johnson’s part. The prime minister has cut the Treasury down to size in a way unimaginable under any previous government. The historic tension at the top of government between prime minister and chancellor – think Blair and Brown, Thatcher and Howe or Major and Lamont – has been a necessary division of power, a creative pluralism and a democratic safeguard. It can’t be abolished as easily as Johnson may think.
The message of this reshuffle is a nasty and dangerous one: absolute power resides in just one place, No 10. The Treasury, which strove to protect the nation’s finances against the worst damages of Brexit, is a diminished force – for now. Attempts to thwart Johnson’s reckless plans – whether branded super-bridges or Brexit vanity projects – will be overridden. If Whitehall joked that Javid was “chino” – chancellor in name only – his successor can expect even less respect.
Although the power of Cummings now seems unprecedented, seasoned observers are waiting for him to overstep the mark. No one is indispensable, a truism of prime ministerial power. This prime minister will be quick to jettison anyone imperilling his popularity, including his svengali.
This is a revenge reshuffle: off with the head of anyone who ever queried Johnson’s progress, any doubter of his hard Brexit deal-making. It’s a naked command not for ordinary loyalty but for craven obedience. Even minor disagreements will be punished: Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey, who dared to pipe up at the cabinet table, were sacked. This prime minister, who expunged his moderate wing, even respected figures such as Kenneth Clarke, never forgives.
Here’s another warning: effectiveness in policy terms will be no safeguard against a jealous leader’s suspicion. Julian Smith, the one secretary of state with a significant success to his name, has been summarily dismissed. Despite earning universal praise for his delicate skill in resurrecting the Stormont government, Smith was perhaps never forgiven for warning a no-deal Brexit would be “very, very bad” for the province.
Boris Johnson's reshuffle: How does his Cabinet look?
Javid has been removed after just 204 days as chancellor – a post that requires longevity to build trust and friendships across the divide. The Institute for Government rightly protests rapid ministerial turnover – five universities ministers in under two years and 10 housing ministers in a decade. Stability is not the signal of this reshuffle, but rather the precariousness of every minister’s career.
Johnson’s choice of pipsqueaks and placemen, yes-women and yellow bellies is the most under-brained, third-rate cabinet in living memory. The three great offices of state are held by those who pose no threat because they owe their unmerited promotion to the prime minister alone. A weak chancellor will curb Treasury interference with whatever headline-pleasers the prime minister has in mind. Resisting Treasury orthodoxy is often the right course of action; more spending is precisely what the country now needs. But there is scant sign that the money will flow to restoring the greatest damage done by almost a decade of austerity. Eye-catching policies will take precedence over restoring cuts to tax credits, the justice department, local authorities or the many dull everyday necessities in dire need of funding.
In the Home Office, Priti Patel can do her worst with populist gestures on immigration and punishment, while the prime minister keeps his own “liberal” reputation untarnished. As for Dominic Raab in the Foreign Office, he has proved himself well able tolie like a battalion of troopers on anything connected to Brexit. On Sky he was already laying out his “blame the EU” strategy for the new red tape, tariffs and border checks Johnson’s own obduracy will create.
Those anxious about the future of the BBC will be searching for signs of new culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s view on public broadcasting – but as with other new appointments, expect each minister to find their own views conform with surprising regularity to every passing thought that crosses the brow of Johnson and Cummings. Alok Sharma, as new business secretary, takes command of the crucial Cop26 UN summit in Glasgow. Is there much point in asking after his own views on the climate crisis?
The only minister whose own opinions matter round this cabinet table will be Michael Gove, in control of the Cabinet Office and de facto deputy prime minister. Never forget that behind the suave courtesy is a ferocious ideologue, devilishly effective in driving his projects through government. His rapid, evidence-free imposition of academies and free schools has left much of the education system in money-wasting and impoverished disarray.
All the hallmarks are here of a government led by a reckless prime minister, supported by two even more reckless men inside No 10, with none of the checks and balances usual in a cabinet of at least semi-equals. To lose a chancellor so soon, by design or accident, is a foretaste of roller-coaster decision-making just as the country plunges into a high-risk Brexit fallout. If battering the Treasury over the head yields more money for spending, all well and good – but with the fabric of public services worn so thin, there is little sign that it will be spent where it’s needed.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist