The promotion of Andrea Leadsom from self-imposed backbench exile to a full Cabinet post as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is a surprising one, though not for the reasons you might think.
BEIS was a creation of Theresa May – the interventionist ring of “Industrial Strategy” is the big clue – and there are plenty in Johnson’s camp, most notably Liz Truss, who would have preferred to seen it broken up or reduced in size. Its survival is most likely a sign that this administration is not intended to be long for this world: with an election looming, there is simply not enough time for a sweeping – or even modest – reorganisation of Whitehall.
Leadsom is only the second BEIS Secretary, and on Brexit – the issue causing businesses anxiety more than any other – she could not be further away from her predecessor, Greg Clark. Whereas Leadsom was one of the earliest ministerial converts to no-deal, Clark repeatedly defied the whip to oppose it.
He and his ministers saw their job as protecting the “wings and wheels” of the UK economy: its just-in-time supply chains and manufacturing industry. Leadsom will not only have to square her advocacy for a no-deal Brexit with the demands of business, but she must also convince them that the government could and would go through with the threat. Given the opposition of a Commons to no-deal, that could well prove tricky.
Before that, however, Leadsom has an even trickier job at the top of her in-tray: finding a buyer for British Steel. Should she fail, it may well damage the reputation of Johnson’s government among the voters in Leave areas that it is trying so desperately to woo.