For ministers who trooped into Downing Street on Wednesday it was hardly the warmest of welcomes. As the promoted, sacked and sidelined came and went, four armed policemen stared grimly through the black gates while anti-government protestors blared out music from a large speaker on the pavement outside.
Road to Nowhere was one song that rang out down Whitehall, The Lunatics have taken over the Asylum followed. Nearby, the anti-Brexit activist Steve Bray was in full cry, confronting the new foreign secretary Liz Truss within minutes of her elevation, shouting: “So you are the new minister for pork pies.”
Inside No 10 Boris Johnson was wielding the knife, showing his ruthless side by clearing out cabinet ministers he regarded as liabilities, ditching the likes of Gavin Williamson as education secretary and demoting Dominic Raab to make way for Truss (though Raab got the consolation prize of deputy prime minister). Special advisers and others who had worked for those on the move gathered at the Red Lion pub opposite for a few drinks, wondering what it would all mean for them.
In late afternoon at the Commons, a group of Tory MPs who had come into politics hoping one day to be in government, were on the terrace also having a few drinks – but none had received the call. Would they ever get their moment? “If you are not a woman or Asian, you have no chance,” said one, drawing on a cigarette.
Reshuffles are never easy or pleasant for those who are dumped, demoted, or simply overlooked. They cause convulsions throughout government, and resentment more widely inside the party holding power. The appointment that immediately caught the eye and caused most commotion was the elevation of former I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! star and critic of the BBC Nadine Dorries to the job of culture secretary, in a shake-up that also saw the respected John Whittingdale axed as media minister. Senior Tory MP Bernard Jenkin was stunned. “I am really shocked that John Whittingdale has been removed. Nobody knows more about the media than John,” he said.
Even for those who are moved up or put into new, more high-profile posts, reshuffles can be daunting. Michael Gove’s move from the cabinet office to take charge of the entire “levelling up” agenda at the ministry of housing, communities and local government is a case in point. Gove’s switch was well received by most senior Tories. But that was because they know that “levelling up” is as yet little more than a vague slogan that could break Johnson’s government if it turns out to be no more than that by the time of the next election.
Gove is seen as the one minister who might be able to deliver some substance or at least conceal a lack of it. “It makes Michael the most important man in government,” said one former minister. “But it also the most difficult job there is. It is not easy to level up when Covid has left the country in so much debt. He has to find a way to do what we can for our red wall voters while also not hacking off the Tory shires.”
The former Tory MP Paul Goodman, who now edits the ConservativeHome website, suggested the success of Johnson’s first term now rested with Gove and his new team. “If anyone can give the levelling-up project direction and cut-through, Gove can. He will have Neil O’Brien, who worked on George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse plan, in his department. It’s starting to look like the place for rising Tory MPs to be. All this will do nothing to deter the conspiracy theorists who believe that he was already running this administration from the cabinet office – and that this is not so much a government as a Gove-rnment.”
Ryan Shorthouse, director of the Bright Blue thinktank, agreed but added that Gove would have to “deliver quickly – soon we’ll be two years into this government, and there is as yet no original initiative or institution that so-called ‘left-behind’ places or people can associate with this administration”.
The problems for Gove and the new cabinet are not only related to lack of money. There are huge political hurdles to jump to get levelling up off the ground. A divided Tory party which won so many seats from Labour in 2019 in the north of England and the Midlands, is pulling in two directions both on how to improve the lot of areas left behind for decades, and on other fairness issues now arising as huge Covid subsidies and special payments and allowances are due to be ended.
As we report today, there is a growing Tory rebellion and split looming over plans to end the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit for millions on low incomes at the end of this month. Former leader Iain Duncan Smith and others including ex-deputy prime minister Damian Green are against reversing the uplift abruptly without retaining some extra help for those struggling to get by. They can see the potential political damage and a gift for Labour if those on low incomes are treated too harshly.
But other fiscally Conservative Tories insist this is a vital test of Johnson’s and chancellor Rishi Sunak’s mettle. “This was a temporary uplift. We have to decide if we want to be a permanent economic basket case or if we can take the tough decisions necessary to get the public finances back in order,” said one Tory MP on the right of the party. These tensions will play out not only in an anticipated vote on the universal credit uplift this week but also in the run-up to the budget and autumn statement in a few weeks time.
Universal credit is far from the only special Covid measure due to be ended soon. With cases of the virus still stubbornly high – and the reintroduction of some measures not ruled out – MPs and business people are edgy. The new cabinet has a raft of tough calls to make. The furlough scheme, grants for the self-employed, restrictions on demands for winding up petitions all end on 30 September, while the recovery loans scheme is due to finish on 31 December and then legal protections against evictions by landlords end on 25 March next year. What Johnson called the “irreversible road to freedom” is littered with politically explosive minefields yet to be negotiated.
Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said businesses were “frustrated by the inability of the government to give them any detail around what circumstances could lead to new restrictions and what support firms could get.
Commenting on the end of furlough, she said that business leaders “desperately want to know what support they will be offered if the worst happens. We would also like to see furlough – and other support measures – put permanently on the shelf so they can be activated if there is a further lockdown. We are simply asking that they give businesses the assurance as to what will happen if the pandemic spikes again and that they will not be left behind.”
The next few months with new ministers in place will go a long way to defining what Boris Johnson’s government is all about. He has been brutal in his reshuffle but how radical can his team afford to be? Gove may be the one in the spotlight but others seem to have been installed to give the administration more ideological, reforming zeal.
The appointment of Dorries is continuing to cause reverberations this weekend. What will she do with the BBC and Channel 4? Why did Johnson move Oliver Dowden out of the way to the cabinet office to make way for her?
“The one move people have found confusing is the Nadine appointment,” said a senior minister. “Everyone thought Oliver had been doing a good job. That’s the one that sticks out. Was there a deal done some time ago over something? I just don’t know.”
Some believe the former vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi may have been put at education not just to end the era of Williamson gaffes but to develop a radical new agenda for schools. And what of Truss, champion of post-Brexit trade deals and free markets? How will she position the UK internationally when relations with our European neighbours are at such a low ebb, and tensions are so high with China?
“Watch this space,” said one cabinet minister, pointing to her reputation as one of the least predictable members of the cabinet and one often willing to think the unthinkable.
There is a view in senior Tory circles that Johnson wants this new cabinet to be bold and eye-catching, not dull and conservative, and draw favourable comparisons with the apparent caution of Keir Starmer’s Labour. There is also a belief that Johnson made the changes he did to consolidate his own power. “It is clear he promoted Truss to make her a rival to Sunak for the succession, to divide and rule,” said one source.
Today Truss will embark on her first high-profile overseas trip as foreign secretary making a four-day visit to New York and Washington DC. Alongside Johnson she will meet Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris, as well as attend the United Nations General Assembly.
The visit comes amid a furious diplomatic row with Paris, in which the UK is centre stage, over nuclear submarines which led to an extraordinary decision by France to recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia. The French are furious at Australia’s decision to cancel a £48bn contract it signed with the French company Naval Group in 2016 for a fleet of 12 attack class submarines. Instead Canberra will acquire nuclear-powered submarines built by the US and UK.
French officials have accused Australia, the US and the UK of behaving in an underhand, duplicitous manner that has betrayed and humiliated France. China has also expressed its dismay, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying the agreement “seriously undermines regional peace and stability and intensifies the arms race”.
Truss will have to face the wrath of Paris on her visit to the UN and tread a careful diplomatic path. Last last night, however, she appeared very determined to show that the UK was on a new path in foreign affairs, whatever that meant for old-style relations with EU countries or Nato, as she trumpeted Johnson’s vision of global Britain in the era after Brexit.
Like “levelling up”, the phrase “global Britain” is a slogan which may sound appealing. But it too carries with it dangers as the new Johnson team embarks on phase two of this administration’s endeavours to do things very differently at home and abroad.