The short sharp shuffle. Sharma takes on COP26 full-time. Kwarteng steps up a rung to become Business Secretary.

8 Jan

The end of transition was a calendar fixture and ought, in the event of a trade agreement, to have offered Boris Johnson the chance to refresh the Government – since a deal would both boost his standing with Conservative MPs and bring calmer political waters.

But then an event took place last winter that was very much not a calendar fixture: the first major pandemic in a century.  It would consequently have looked and been frivolous to have a major reshuffle now, and so lash those waters up again at a moment when the Prime Minister needs all Ministerial hands on deck.

The same logic applies to the next natural break in the political calendar: the February half-term recess.  Hospitalisations will have risen and may not be falling by then.

Then there is Easter in early April.  But Covid considerations apart, local elections are due in May.  Why hold a big reshuffle before then rather than after?

And if they are postponed until June, why not wait until September for a shuffle, before the Conservative Party Conference (for there will be one in some form), rather than send MPs off for the summer recess in the wake of a self-made squall – since reshuffles inevitably bring more pain than gain?

The shape of events since the outbreak of a new strain of Covid has thus suggested putting off the shuffle until early autumn.  Furthermore, no Cabinet Minister will then reasonably be able to complain if sacked or moved, having been in place for the best part of 18 months.  However, there was a snag.

Namely, what to do about COP26, due to take place in Glasgow this November?  To cut a long story short, it will need an agreement to be a political success for the Prime Minister, and is set to be his second major diplomatic setpiece of the year – the first being the UK’s G7 presidency and the consequent summit, usually held during the summer.

That requires a lot of legwork.  And the Minister in charge of the COP26 negotiation, Alok Sharma, wore two hats – his other being that of Business Secretary.

So the Prime Minister has gone for a short sharp solution – announced on a Friday evening, a legendary graveyard news slot, in which Governments make announcements that they wish to gain limited publicity.

No big shuffle.  No return to the Cabinet yet for Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was removed when her DfID job was abolished recently, but reportedly promised a return.  She is back in the department as Energy Minister, which will surely be a disappointment.  And there is no comeback for Sajid Javid, whose name was in the frame for the BEIS job.  Instead, Johnson has opted for a minimalist, orderly solution.

Sharma stays in Cabinet, and goes full-time for the COP26 role.  And Kwasi Kwarteng, already a Minister of State in the Business department, moves one slot up to replace him as Secretary of State.  By our count, the Cabinet was one under its maximum count of 22, so Sharma stays a full member.

Kwarteng is a big, personable, right-wing historian, who once wrote a lively column for the Prime Minister’s alma mater – the Daily Telegraph.  He was a co-author of the Free Enterprise Group’s bracing study Britannia Unchained.

So he is bound to see the trade deal as a further loosening of the bonds.  The Government’s friends will say that he ups the Cabinet’s number of ethnic minority members to five.  Its enemies will reply that it raises the number of Old Etonians to two.

Sharma is not at all a front-of-house Cabinet showman, being inclined to block the bowling and risk nothing outside off stump, but he is a diligent, toiling Minister.  More to the point, he is a loyalist: a Johnson voter in the 2019 leadership election, playing Jeremy Hunt during campaign practice debates.  Kwarteng is another loyalist – though he broke ranks to lay into “misfit and weirdo” Andrew Sabinsky.

The term was Dominic Cummings’, not Kwarteng’s: readers will remember the former Chief Adviser seeking to recruit some to the civil service.  Kwarteng departed from the Government line to accuse Sabinsky of racism. But Cummings has left the building…

We take this mini-shuffle as a sign that a bigger one is now unlikely to come until the autumn.  This is not a strong Cabinet, but the Prime Minister is sticking with it, at least for the moment.

Dependability, a lack of fuss, predictability – and taking the drama out of event.  These are not qualities most people associate with Johnson but, when it comes to Government shuffles, they are becoming trademarks: oh, plus loyalty, of course.  Though the treatment of Trevelyan hangs over these moves like a questionmark.

Opposition to new national lockdowns is growing on the Conservative backbenches

22 Sep

Boris Johnson will speak to the Commons this afternoon and to the nation this evening about the Government’s latest Coronavirus measures.  We wait to see exactly what he will announce, but the thrust of his proposals seems clear enough. Essentially, he wants to separate work and home life.

The Prime Minister aims to keep work going in as normal a way as possible – with face covers, hand-washing and social distancing in place to help make this possible.  This is government “putting its arms” around the economy, to borrow a phrase he likes to use.  It is the part of the policy aimed at protecting livelihoods.

Meanwhile, home life and leisure will take the strain of reducing the growth in Covid-19 cases.  There is a rule of six.  Pubs and restaurants will shut at 10pm.  There will be marshalls as well as fines.  Not to mention lockdowns – like those currently now in place in Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere. This is the half of the policy intended to save lives.

Whether this scheme will last long is doubtful.  We’ve explained previously on this site why many schools may not stay open fully, or may close altogether.  That will have a knock-on effect on the economy, since parents with younger children will often have no alternative but to stay at home, and provide the childcare themselves.

Furthermore, the division between work, home and leisure isn’t always clear.  The first and third meet in retail: some shopping is leisure; all staffing is work.  As the debate within government over the new 10pm closing time for pubs, restaurants and outlets indicates, non-essential shopping is vulnerable to new closures.  And Ministers are already backing off the push to get workers to return to offices (since they will be more relucant to use public transport).

It looks as though we’re on the way to another national lockdown – in effect, if most cities are locked down; or formally, if the Government eventually declares one.  Tomorrow, in the wake of the Prime Minister’s broadcast, we will return to the big questions.

Such as: what’s the fundamental aim of the policy?  If it is no longer to protect the NHS, is it to suppress the virus?  If so, are the healthcare trade-offs that would arise from such a policy worthwhile – let alone the wider economic ones?  Why isn’t testing and tracing, rather than lockdowns, taking the strain of reducing the disease, as intended?  For today, we want to probe what happened yesterday during Matt Hancock’s Commons statement.

Chris Grayling, Greg Clark, Harriet Baldwin, Simon Fell, Simon Clarke, Alec Shelbrooke, Anthony Browne, Graham Brady, Andrew Percy, Jason McCartney, Shaun Bailey, Marco Longhi, Edward Leigh, Pauline Latham, Bernard Jenkin, Duncan Baker, James Davies, William Wragg, Steve Brine, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan spoke.

Of these, Grayling, Clarke, Brady, Leigh, Latham, Baker, Wragg and Brine were all, to varying degrees, hostile to another national lockdown.  Browne’s question was perhaps in broadly the same camp.  We are beginning to see resistence to new national shutdowns intensify on the Conservative backbenches.

Iain Dale: My end of term report on the Cabinet. Part Two.

31 Jul

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Last week, I awarded my end of term marks for half the Cabinet. Here are my marks for the second half…

Robert Buckland – Secretary of State for Justice

B +

A calming voice on the media, Buckland comes over as the voice of reason in a world often dominated by unreason. One of the few former Remainers left in government, he has been totally loyal to the Prime Minister and embarked on an important programme of reform in the justice and prison systems.

Liz Truss – Secretary of State for International Trade

B –

A survivor, Truss was tipped to be sacked after the election, but she kept her job…and is now tipped for the sack again. If she negotiates a host of free trade agreements before the end of the year, it would render her unsackable. Japan and New Zealand look to be the first ones, which could be announced in the autumn.

Therese Coffey – Secretary of State for Work & Pensions

C +

A surprise appointment when Amber Rudd resigned, Coffey is a solid performer and simply got on with the job of trying to ensure the benefits system meets the demands of the Covid crisis. She sorted the initial creaks in the Universal Credit system, where people couldn’t access the website or phone lines and neutered it as an issue. Number Ten are said to be unhappy with one or two comments in interviews but she lives to fight another day.

George Eustice – Secretary of State for DEFRA

B –

George Eustice’s great advantage is that he is actually a farmer himself and, in this job, that helps. He chaired quite a few of the Covid press conferences without either putting a foot wrong or saying anything very meaningful. One of the greyer figures in cabinet he needs to up his charisma factor a tad if he is to be able to sell a post Brexit message of optimism for the farming and food sectors.

Robert Jenrick – Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government

C

Given the two big scandals he’s faced over the last few months, no-one could accuse the Cabinet’s youngest member of lacking resilience. He’s knuckled down and got on with his job, although his effectiveness within Cabinet has to be questioned given what he’s gone through.

Alistair Jack – Secretary of State for Scotland

C

Largely anonymous to us south of the border, Jack has also failed to fill the charisma gap in Scottish politics left by Ruth Davidson. So has Jackson Carlaw – who has now resigned. Jack needs to be getting out there to sell a positive pro-union message, but seem to be finding it difficult to do so.

Simon Hart – Secretary of State for Wales

Tiggerish and a total enthusiast for politics, Hart has been busy selling the Conservative message in Wales, in a way his Scottish counterparts find more difficult, possibly because of the way the Scottish media works.

Oliver Dowden – Secretary of State for Digital. Culture, Media & Sport

B

After an awkward start in the job, Dowden, commonly considered one of the cleverest people in politics, has come into his own in recent weeks. His statement on Huawei in the House was a master lesson in how to deliver a difficult message and answer questions from MPs fluently and convincingly.

Baroness Evans – Leader of the House of Lords

B

A warm and empathetic character, Natalie Evans is a much unde-rused asset by the government. She doesn’t do enough media, and I say that because she’s good at it and does ‘human’ very well. A popular figure in the Lords she has kept their Lordships onside during some hairy moment.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan – Secretary of State for International Development

C +

Still a Secretary of State despite her department being abolished. Since her appointment at the election, she hasn’t had much of a public profile, but has hopefully brought some renewed rigour to a department that sorely needed it. The question is: Will the Prime Minister deliver on his promise to find a new cabinet job for her when her department is subsumed into the Foreign Office in September?

– – –

And now to the ministers attending Cabinet. By the way, it is a travesty that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Leader of the House aren’t full members of the Cabinet. There was a time when Leader of the House was considered one of the top five jobs in Cabinet.

Steve Barclay – Chief Secretary to the Treasury

B

If controlling spending was the criteria to judge a Chief Secretary by, Steve Barclay would rate a Z, but as we all know, it’s not his fault. He could have been very hacked off about his apparent demotion from Brexit Secretary, but he’s got on with the job, and used his previous experience of being a Treasury Minister to good effect. He does a good job in media interviews, albeit possibly a little bit too much on message. He’s got a good sense of humour and should use it more.

Jacob Rees-Mogg – Leader of the House of Commons

C+

Seems to have been neutered since his election campaign gaffe. He used to be ubiquitous in the media but has now completely disappeared from view and is only ever seen speaking publicly on the floor of the House of Commons. One of the few characters in the cabinet; for Number Ten, he seems to have become rather too much of a character.

Suella Braverman – Attorney General

C+

Has to try harder than her predecessors to gain the respect of the legal profession. There’s a bit of misogyny here, and has had to contend with the fact that there were better qualified candidates for this hugely important job. She’s made a quiet start, but possibly got involved in party politics a tad too much, given the independent nature of the role.

Mark Spencer – Chief Whip

B –

A popular figure with many on the government benches, he’s come under fire over several controversial decisions, not least to withdraw the whip from Julian Lewis, while allowing the likes of Rob Roberts in Delyn to keep it. The Lewis affair was completely mishandled, although the jury is out on how much it was down to Spencer or how much the key decisions were taken in Number Ten.