Matt Hancock’s resignation as health secretary has given Boris Johnson the opportunity he has been looking for since he dispensed with the services of Dominic Cummings: a way to return Sajid Javid to the top table.
The case for bringing back Javid, who resigned as chancellor in February 2020, is watertight: he has never failed at any department (from a Tory perspective), making him a safe choice for health secretary. He is another person around the cabinet who can, as one Javid admirer put it to me during the David Cameron era, “reliably eat shit on the Today programme without making news”. And bringing him back into the fold reduces the number of plausible prime ministers on the backbenches, and the sitting prime minister is always better off when there are as few candidates for the top job outside government as possible.
An added benefit is that he has, since returning to the backbenches been a near-perfect study in loyalty. As with the promotion of Alan Mak, this move serves a double duty: it brings back a political asset to the cabinet, and it signals to troublesome backbenchers that the best way to get ahead is still to be a team player, despite the Prime Minister’s own rebellious history.
But the return of Javid is also making Conservative backbenchers nervous. Why? Because the biggest single reason for the Prime Minister to conduct another reshuffle was to bring back Javid to the fold. Johnson is, I’m told, reluctant to conduct a full-scale reshuffle any time soon: the last one was a disaster that created many more enemies on the backbenches, hastened the end of Cummings’ time in Downing Street and has thrown any number of avoidable obstacles in the way of the government’s legislative programme.
As Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary the day before his 1962 reshuffle, “these events are always very bad and perhaps the worst of all the duties of a PM”. Most prime ministers will admit to hating having to do them and most prime ministers are better at saying “no” to people than Boris Johnson.
Some Tory backbenchers fear that now he doesn’t have the big shiny carrot of bringing Javid back, Johnson is not going to go through the painful process of sacking people to make space for disgruntled men from the 2015 intake, or bright young things from the 2017 or 2019 intake. Bringing Javid back makes the government stronger in that it has one better administrator and all-round political asset than it did yesterday. But Johnson will need to reassure Conservative backbenchers that the return of Javid doesn’t mean that their hopes of junior ministerial office are permanently on ice.