Chaotic reshuffle reveals toxic culture at heart of government

Savid Javid has resigned as Chancellor (Photo: The Times)
The annual media circus, otherwise known as a cabinet reshuffle, took place today giving the likes of Laura Kuenssberg plenty to speculate about. Let's be honest, there's nothing the media likes more than an excuse to speculate especially when it comes to political personalities.

There is, however, much more to a reshuffle than the internal dynamics of the Conservative parliamentary party. This is not simply a drama being played out for the benefit of journalists, but a series of decisions that will have significant consequences for the UK.

One of the first changes made this quite clear. The effective sacking of Julian Smith, one of the more competent ministers, as Northern Ireland secretary seems as unjustified as it is foolish. Smith had not only managed to command the respect of the various parties in Northern Ireland, but had also successfully restored devolution. What more could he realistically have done in the time he has had? That the Prime Minister is willing to dismiss the one cabinet minister who has any track record of showing positive leadership, presumably due to previously expressed differences over Brexit, says more about Johnson than it does Smith. Unless we were in any doubt, here is a clear signal that dissent will not be tolerated. Given the trust Smith had in both Belfast and Dublin, I can only conclude that the Prime Minister has little interest in cultivating positive relations in – and between – Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Sky’s Tamara Cohen suggested that Smith’s dismissal is due to comments he made last summer indicating that Brexit would be "very, very bad for Northern Ireland". Presumably Boris Johnson would prefer an uncritically pro-Brexit minister with little understanding of the impact of UK policy on Northern Ireland – obviously someone like Brandon “I voted remain but we now need to get Brexit done whatever the cost” Lewis would be perfect.

The most surprising news was the resignation of Savid Javid. He was widely tipped to be allowed to stay on as chancellor, in spite of his defence of the indefensible on the matter of the Jamaica deportations. It appears Javid was offered the opportunity to continue in office but on the condition he dismissed his advisors, which he refused to do. This comes after the well-publicised spat between Dominic Cummings and the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds; the idea that the chancellor’s future should hinge on the views of such people is as absurd as it is a sign of the real (and competing) powers in government.

What is even more surprising, at least to me, is the way in which the Prime Minister and his advisor believed the chancellor would accept their terms and demands. Why should any minister, let alone the chancellor, accept such terms? Again, this speaks much of the culture at the heart of cabinet. Disagreements are dealt with brutally but also rather simplistically and without any consideration as to the risks of alienating former cabinet members who will inevitably become formidable opponents on the backbenches.

In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, The Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman observed that “government is a big place but there is only so much room for so many egos". He may well be right that the struggle between Javid and Cummings was one of egos, but I am reminded by the late, great Brian Walden’s question to Margaret Thatcher in 1989, after Nigel Lawson’s surprise resignation: “do you deny that your chancellor would have stayed if you had sacked your advisor?” My suspicion is that in creating a powerful enemy of Javid, Johnson has made a mistake of similar proportions.

The new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was widely unknown until the General Election – when he deputised for the Prime Minister in a televised debate.  A man of limited parliamentary experience, Sunak’s performance in that debate was wooden and unconvincing – but never deviating from the pre-agreed script. His appointment owes little to any discernible ability and everything to the fact that he is a Johnson loyalist at a time when the Prime Minister and his advisor want greater control over the treasury. Sunak is seen as reliable, which might be considered a compliment if reliable in the current political context didn’t translate as “PM’s stooge”.

Other changes included Andrea Leadsom and Esther McVey being removed from their positions as Business Secretary and Housing Minister respectively. Leadsom, who famously had to ask whether man-made climate change was real in 2015, ironically left office claiming to be "particularly proud" of her work on the net zero carbon target. McVey on the other hand simply tweeted that she was "sorry to be relieved of [her] duties as housing minister". I suspect very few others are.

Geoffrey Cox has also been dismissed as Attorney General. Given his recent undermining of the judiciary this might seem a welcome move, but there is the distinct possibility that he will instead be appointed to lead a review into "judicial activism" - meaning he can continue to make threats towards judicial independence and the rule of law in the name of "reform". 
In a move that surprised no-one, Theresa Villiers has been relieved of her duties at DEFRA. Also out are Nusrat Ghani and George Freeman (transport ministers), Chris Skidmore (education minister) and Nicky Morgan (culture secretary).
What tells us more about the Prime Minister’s intentions are those who remain in their roles. Priti Patel stays on as Home Secretary, in spite of her determination to tackle “counter-terrorism offenders”. So does Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary who, until a few months ago, “hadn’t realised” the significance to UK trade of the Calais-Dover crossing.  Michael Gove, whose previous talk of frictionless trade with the EU has this week been shown for what it is, also remains in his role. As for Liz Truss, further comment on her unenviable record of incompetence seems irrelevant. Let no-one accuse Boris Johnson of making ineptitude a bar for high office.
This reshuffle was supposed to point to a government that was united in purpose, but instead shows a government in disarray. This is not a government at ease with itself. Neither is this the “united” cabinet promised by Johnson during the December election campaign. Any signs of dissent have been punished, even if they were historic ones that pre-dated Johnson’s premiership in the case of Julian Smith. Those who dare to question the government's policy direction, or refuse to cave in to the Prime Minister’s demands, have been crushed underneath the Cummings steamroller.
What is painfully apparent is that Dominic Cummings has presided over the creation of a new culture of politics at the heart of government. Unfortunately, it is a culture of suspicion which always feels the need to find enemies to purge; a culture of control from the centre that Ian Blackford correctly describes as finding its expression in “an ego battle between de-facto deputy Dominic Cummings and former Cabinet ministers”. Ironically, the desire to exert control has resulted in a government running out of control.
Acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey similarly noted that, “like every crisis at No 10, you can see Dominic Cummings lurking in the background. This is the Conservatives' own un-elected bureaucrat, unaccountable to the public, attempting to control every part of government." That much is undeniably true. But the more pertinent question is this: to what ends is Mr Cummings seeking to control it? There is no doubt we’re witnessing a power struggle playing out, but what is the endgame?
This doesn’t feel like the first reshuffle of a new, confident, united and purpose-driven government, but is instead reminiscent of the final months of Thatcher’s government in 1989-90, with ministers alienated by controlling advisors and a Prime Minister surrounding himself with unquestioning minions. In a show of weakness rather than strength, the Prime Minister’s judgment has been found wanting and a toxic culture revealed to operate at the heart of government.