- November 16, 2023
- Posted by: lutherpendragon
- Categories: insight, news
This week’s reshuffle brought some surprises. Director and Head of Public Affairs Adam Thomas shares his key takeaways.
Monday’s reshuffle was not unexpected. Rumours of an imminent Cabinet shake-up had been swirling for months in Westminster, but Suella Braverman’s provocative statements in recent weeks forced the Prime Minister’s hand. There has been a mix of old and new faces join the Government front bench. Much of the discussion has centred around the big headline: the return of David Cameron, but beyond this, the reshuffle saw the promotion of rising stars in the Conservative Party as Sunak shapes up the top team that he will take into a General Election.
Before most people had begun their day at work, the PM had sacked the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman. This didn’t come as a surprise to many, and neither did replacing her with James Cleverly – who has proven himself an effective communicator and is popular with the public. Following the Supreme Court decision on Wednesday on the Rwanda plan, Cleverly is now tasked with reviving the Government’s legislative agenda on illegal migration, potentially through emergency legislation. Making Cleverly Home Secretary is a huge vote of confidence in him to deliver on this electorally important priority.
The surprise came when Cleverly’s replacement at the Foreign Office exited his car and walked up Downing Street – none other than former PM David Cameron. With a peerage swifty granted by the King, Cameron becomes the first person to occupy one of the great offices of state from the Lords since Lord Carrington was Foreign Secretary under Margaret Thatcher.
The reception to Cameron’s return among MPs was lukewarm. Since leaving Number 10, he has rarely been in the news for a positive reason. Take for example the Greensill lobbying scandal just two years ago, where Cameron was found to have shown a “significant lack of judgement” by a Parliamentary inquiry. Added to his controversial record while in office, Cameron carries a significant amount of baggage that opens up Sunak to new lines of attack that could have been avoided. Many were also quick to point out that among 350 Tory MPs, Sunak perceived none of them able to hold the brief.
Sunak’s logic, however, may be more subtle. With a wealth of foreign affairs experience while he was PM, Cameron will be a steady hand on the world stage, allowing Sunak to focus on his domestic agenda. Furthermore, Cameron will now be expected to support the latest Government lines on a whole range of other issues unrelated to his brief. Cameron is a formidable media performer, which will prove an asset to the Government when it comes to its other – arguably more salient – policy priorities.
Whereas Cameron is an old face, the reinvigorated Treasury team includes some rising stars. Former Pensions Minister Laura Trott has impressed since taking up her first Ministerial job in October 2022. Pensions has been a difficult brief to hold in the past year given the high inflationary environment, putting pressure on the Government to abandon the flagship ‘Triple Lock policy.’ Trott has navigated these demands well, providing a reassuring tone. It’s worth also noting that Trott joins a growing contingent of Cameron-era SpAds in key positions, joining the likes of Oliver Dowden in Cabinet but also current No 10 advisers such as Adam Atashzai and Nick Park.
Now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Trott and newly-promoted Conservative Party Chair Richard Holden join Claire Coutinho as the three 2019-intake MPs around the Cabinet table.
Bim Afolami also takes up the role of Economic Secretary to the Treasury and City Minister, his first Ministerial job. He was recently Chair of the Regulatory Reform Group of Tory MPs, demonstrating his willingness to think on a grand scale on the issues facing the sector.
Victoria Atkins is the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, replacing Steve Barclay who has moved to the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. While perhaps a lesser known figure outside of Westminster, Atkins has been quietly impressing at each Department she’s been a Minister in. She’s perceived as highly capable and, importantly in the current political context, collaborative with colleagues.
When it comes to the Conservatives’ key priority of cutting NHS waiting lists, Atkins’ experience in the Treasury will put her in good stead. Strikes at every level in the NHS, while not being responsible for long waiting lists, have certainly held the Government back in its attempts to reduce them. Any sort of deal with striking workers must be agreed by the Treasury, and Atkins will be well placed to negotiate.
Will the reshuffled Cabinet affect the Party’s fortunes?
When it comes to holding together the electoral coalition that the Conservatives won in 2019, it’s hard to see how the reshuffle will help. Cameron’s history as the face of the Remain campaign during the 2016 referendum will not help Sunak’s attempts to hold onto Red Wall voters, prompting the question of whether the PM has given up on doing so.
With the departure of Suella Braverman, all the great offices of state are now held, once again, by men. This is the first time that this has been the case since the Conservatives initially came to power in 2010. Of these, all four attended private school and only one – James Cleverly – did not study PPE at Oxford. It seems Sunak may not have paid as much heed to the message this sends as he should, as some in the media have pointed out.
Overall, the Ministerial changes appear more focused on bringing rising stars up through the Party than reviving Sunak’s electoral chances. This is undoubtedly important to build experience among MPs should they lose the next election. However, the lack of high-profile Ministers in Northern seats suggests that Sunak is focused on maintaining safe, Blue Wall seats rather than the broad coalition which saw the Conservatives win in 2019.
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