Shuffling the house of cards
It is only two months since the Conservatives’ colossal victory in December’s general election, and already the buzzy memories of champagne corks in Downing Street are giving way to the cold realities of Government.
With the election over and done, a Cabinet reshuffle has been on the cards for weeks. It is a chance for the Prime Minister to refresh his top team, bring in new talent, and remove figures who are performing poorly in their ministerial briefs. But it is also a political opportunity; to reward key supporters, punish foes, and stamp the PM’s authority on the wider party. So beyond the political soap opera (of rows, rivalries and which ministers are less capable than fictional cartoon characters), what will this reshuffle represent for the direction of this Government, and the delivery of its grand election promises?
First, this will be a reshuffle of choice, rather than of circumstance. During the Brexit battles that characterised Theresa May’s administration, most reshuffles were triggered because of another wave of politically damaging resignations (including that of Boris Johnson himself). As a result, we had several iterative tweaks to the Government frontbench as it limped toward May’s political end. By contrast, this reshuffle will be the first in a long time that has been planned by the PM, rather than thrust upon them.
Johnson’s Cabinet up to now has been a battle formation: arrayed to win the general election and then to ‘get Brexit done’. But with an 80-seat majority in Parliament, and Labour all but vanquished, the PM’s only real opposition is now internal. Even now that the most disruptive Remainer elements have been purged from the Tory benches (Grieve, Clarke, Soames et al), and the UK is finally out of the EU, there is still some restlessness in the Conservative party. So for Johnson, this week’s reshuffle must consolidate his authority and instil party discipline.
How he does this matters because it will set the contours for debate on policy approaches in the future. Despite everything Johnson has been doing to draw attention to his government’s agenda on Brexit, the NHS, the BBC, and ‘levelling up’ Britain through infrastructure projects like HS2, we actually know relatively little detail about what this Government intends to do on these fronts. Between the reshuffle and the Budget on 11 March, we may soon have a clearer idea.
We know that the fiscal situation is tight. The Scottish Government’s pointed remark in their Budget last week about the lack of clarity on the value of their block grant and the briefing to the Telegraph over the weekend about a possible Mansion Tax and reduction of Pension Relief in the budget point to potential fiscal constraints (leaving aside how this briefing owes more to No.10 / No.11 internecine conflict). It is worth keeping an eye on both Institute of Fiscal Studies and Office for Budget Responsibility briefings in the coming weeks alongside the data from the Office of National Statistics.
Setting these fiscal realities next to the many, many expensive promises made during the campaign will also bring old division lines within the Conservative Party back to the fore. Is this a ‘One Nation’ activist government, committed to investment in public services and an ‘infrastructure renaissance’ to spread prosperity and opportunity across the country, in particular to its new seats in Labour’s erstwhile ‘Red Wall’? Or is this a government of fiscal hawks, nested in the Home Counties tradition of small-state conservatism? This reshuffle may begin to provide the answer.
With dozens of new Tory seats to protect in the North, but the possibility of financial belt tightening on the horizon, this Government faces real political and policy dilemmas in the months ahead. We’ll soon see if the largesse of the campaign promises turns the Tories from popping champagne corks into dealing with a thumping political hangover.