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29 October 2022

Another Tory relaunch? More like Cabinet of the Living Dead

Looking at this government, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Conservatives need an election just as much as we do.

By Jonn Elledge

One of the reasons this Tory government has survived to dog us for so long is because of its infuriating ability to reinvent itself. In 2016 the newly installed May government somehow – thanks to a change of prime minister, the noisy decision to sack George Osborne and so on – managed to convince the voting public that these were not the exact same people who’d been running the country for six years. Then, when Boris Johnson arrived in 2019, they managed to pull the same trick again.

This was, for anybody hoping to hold the government to account, not to mention prevent the country from sinking into the sea, intensely irritating.

There are a number of reasons to suspect this trick doesn’t work quite so well anymore. It’s difficult to know whether Liz Truss would have gotten away with it, since her installation was followed pretty much immediately by the death of the Queen, two weeks of mourning, and then a decision to gleefully drive the economy at 90 miles per hour into a wall.

Tory PM number 5, however, is certainly not being afforded the use of a reset switch. Headlines concerning the looming fiscal crisis, or the return of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary after her long not-quite-week in the wilderness, suggest less glad confident morning than rolling chaos. Perhaps that’s why the widely predicted Sunak bounce has thus far succeeded only in reducing Labour’s lead in the polls to a mere 25 percentage points (exactly twice the lead, as it happens, as the party achieved in 1997). That the opposition is still polling at 50 per cent or more suggests that, just maybe, the electorate has simply had enough.

There’s another reason the voters may not be buying that Rishi Sunak’s government – like May’s, or Johnson’s – is a completely different bunch of people to the one that preceded it. It’s that it quite literally isn’t.

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Sunak himself was, as chancellor, the most popular figure in the ancien régime. This was annoying for those of us who thought he was rubbish at it, but it does now mean that, for good or ill, he’s still associated with that regime. His own Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt – a man he did not appoint and cannot move – may be sensible, a grown-up, a safe pair of hands and all those other phrases we use to describe horrendously right-wing politicians who are, nonetheless, still residents of planet Earth; but he is a sensible, grown-up, safe pair of hands who’s nonetheless been hanging around the headlines like a bad smell since 2010. Much the same can be said of Michael Gove and Grant Shapps.

[See also: Sunak’s cabinet is overwhelmingly private school educated]

It cannot, to be fair, be said of Braverman, who is a relatively new face in the upper echelons of politics. She is, however, a face that will be familiar to the public largely because she was ejected from the same job a mere ten days ago after being responsible for a security breach. The fact the job in question was “minister in charge of security” is only the cherry on the cake. Obviously we all know that her appointment had more to do with internal Tory politics than it did with her qualifications or the national interest, but nonetheless, re-hiring someone who was literally just made to quit for gross incompetence is not a move calculated to scream “whole new government”. (MI5 is now said to be giving the Home Secretary “lessons” on security. This is not perhaps as reassuring as somebody, somewhere, thinks.)

Almost everyone in this cabinet, in fact, can be categorised as either “why are they back” or “why are they still here”. Dominic Raab’s main function as Johnson’s foreign secretary seemed to be “to make it look like his boss had been good at it”; he’s now Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary. Being of a certain age, I will never be able to picture Oliver Dowden without thinking of the weedy one in Nineties flatshare sitcom Game On, but he only quite recently completed a mildly irritating stint as Johnson’s culture secretary, a job whose title he seemed to believe included a silent “war”; he’s back as well. James Cleverly’s main achievement as foreign secretary has been to tell LGBT football fans to respect Qatari homophobia; he is still in post. The list goes on.

The truly baffling one, the one I can’t make sense of at all, is the return of Gavin Williamson as a cabinet office minister. Honestly, what is going on? He was neither an effective minister nor the representative of a faction that needed assuaging. He represents nobody but himself and is widely seen as a joke. So why is he back in government? What kompromat does he have? Are there photographs?

Oh, and despite all these jobs for the boys, remarkably, no promotion could be found for Sunak’s leadership rival Penny Mordaunt. How very odd.

There are structural reasons for this lack of new blood: there isn’t any. Twelve and a half years in, the Conservative government can offer no fresh faces, no rising stars. After so many reboots, anyone who hasn’t been a minister by now is almost certainly so poorly qualified that even this lot would think twice. The only options left to a new Prime Minister are old moves.

So this doesn’t look like a whole new government because it isn’t one. Looking at the names in this cabinet, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Tories need an election just as much as we do.

[See also: The planet and our economy need strong UK leadership at Cop27]

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