By Philip Collins in THE TIMES, 14 February 2020
Take back control. Get Javid Gone. In a petulant reshuffle empty of purpose, the school bullies showed the junior form who’s boss. Three months ago Boris Johnson gave the CBI a categorical guarantee that Sajid Javid would remain as chancellor of the exchequer. Now he has gone for no less a reason than that the prime minister’s consigliere Dominic Cummings wanted to consolidate his power base. The consequence is a cabinet full of cartoon characters, which is just as Mr Cummings wants it.
It is always telling when a prime minister goes out of his way to appoint the C-team. One of the temperamental traits that will make Mr Johnson a weak premier is that, like many people prone to displays of bravura, he is tormented by the fear that he is not up to the job.
Cabinet ministers who have witnessed Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, the unimpressive foreign and home secretaries, find their immunity to speculation in this reshuffle baffling. In fact it is easy to explain. They are there not despite being second-rate; they are there because they are second-rate. That way Mr Johnson does not need to feel threatened and Mr Cummings doesn’t have anyone serious in his way.
Promoted into the position of sacrificial lamb, Rishi Sunak is both victim and beneficiary of the power grab. Mr Javid resigned rather than allow Mr Cummings to control his Treasury team and so Mr Cummings called up the loyal junior.
Elevated from chief secretary, which is not even a cabinet post, Mr Sunak will sit in the Treasury but it is not really worth calling him the chancellor of the exchequer. The nature of his appointment means Treasury officials will not take him seriously as an independent voice. He has taken the job on the strict condition that he polishes the head prefect’s shoes.
Yet Mr Sunak, if he is brave, could throw off those shackles. If he can grin and bear it through a budget that will not be of his devising he could yet be dangerous. Six months from now he should pick a fight with Mr Cummings and demand that the prime minister gets rid of him. Mr Sunak’s colleagues would cheer him to the rafters, he would at a stroke cast off the status of puppet, and he would be free to become chancellor and heir apparent.
Mr Sunak strikes me as both good and yet vastly overrated by those who spend their lives close to politics. He is clever and personable and clearly the top of his class, just as Ed Miliband was. He is now in a position in which he could confound that judgment with a bold action and we will see whether he has the courage or the cunning.
This is a government that seems addicted to running at breakneck speed. Boris Johnson sacked 15 people when he took over from Theresa May. Now, a few months later, he has decided that Sajid Javid, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa Villiers, Julian Smith, Esther McVey and Geoffrey Cox are no good after all. At this rate of attrition there will be nobody left to appoint by this time next year. The entrants to the team around the cabinet table — Oliver Dowden, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Alok Sharma and Suella Braverman — are not exactly indicative of a Tory party flush with talent.
This is, to quite a large extent, Mr Johnson’s own fault. It is no wonder, if Amber Rudd, Jeremy Hunt, David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Justine Greening and Jo Johnson are all discarded, that there is nobody of note to bring in when your chief adviser takes against someone. When the longest serving member of cabinet is Liz Truss it really does make you ask “Is that all you’ve got?”. It is a really poor cabinet. All cabinets are eloquent about the people who assemble them and Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson, for their different reasons, have chosen a weak team.
Weakness, though, has severe costs in the end. British government cannot be run from Downing Street and they will discover this soon enough. All they have to do, in fact, is to ask anyone who has ever tried to do this before but Mr Cummings and Mr Johnson appear not to think that their predecessors might actually know anything. It is obvious, in fact, that this government is going to struggle to achieve much.
With Michael Gove marooned in a non-job we are expected to believe that public sector reform will come from Gavin Williamson, Matt Hancock and Thérèse Coffey. In education, health and welfare it doesn’t look as if the Johnson government has anything to say; if it did they would have featured in the reshuffle.
Indeed, the only cabinet member with any achievements to his name, Julian Smith, has been sacked. It took the Labour Party a decade to start decrying its own achievements but this government has started eating itself at once. In eight months as Northern Ireland secretary, as Leo Varadkar pointed out, Julian Smith helped to restore power sharing in Stormont which is a signal achievement. He was rewarded with the sack because Mr Johnson cannot get over the fact that he was once a bit sceptical about the Brexit strategy. This sacking is petty and a needless assertion of authority. But political capital depreciates rapidly and Mr Johnson is making enemies and gaining nothing.
The reshuffle adds to the suspicion that Mr Johnson is a Wizard of Oz figure. There’s nothing there, really, other than the desire to show off. Apart from Iain Macleod, who died in office, Sajid Javid has become the first chancellor not to deliver a budget since Randolph Churchill in 1880. The squalid mess of this reshuffle calls to mind Evelyn Waugh’s line when Randolph Churchill’s grandson, also Randolph, had a benign tumour removed: “They’ve cut out the only part of Randolph that isn’t malignant.”
This is the reshuffle of a prime minister in a strong position who is revealing his weakness. Rather than use it as an opportunity to display his plan to the country he has used it to display his power to his party.
The first reshuffle after an election is meant to show clarity of purpose and point the way forward. It is a rather sad spectacle, in a way, to witness a prime minister with no real idea what to do now that he has achieved what, for reasons he can hardly articulate, he always wanted.