Reshuffles can be a brutal business. Careers can be ended, departments disrupted, policies paused or abandoned. Ministers leave their office one moment only to discover they have lost their job, office, civil service team, a full and interesting diary, driver and car, and status.
My personal experience was better than most. As a junior minister my departmental boss – George Osborne – always made it clear to me in advance that he wanted me to stay as part of his Treasury team which suited me nicely.
Theresa May had the endearing habit of promoting me although not necessarily when I was expecting it. On the Sunday lunchtime after the 2017 general election, I was just sitting down with the family to eat a barbecue when the call came in asking me to get to No 10 in the next half hour. As I was at least an hour away in Hertfordshire and needed to change (walking up Downing Street in T-shirt, shorts and Reggae Reggae Sauce on my chin I thought inadvisable), I had to request that the reshuffle be delayed.
Seven months later, I was being interviewed by Emma Barnett on BBC Radio 5 Live. She was asking questions about what it was like to be a minister on reshuffle day, what happens and whether I was nervous or not. I played along with this but – given I had spent seven years at the Treasury I thought there was little chance of moving from the Department for Work and Pensions after just seven months – I was complacently relaxed about my fate. At least, until Barnett announced “we understand Justine Greening has been offered the job of work and pensions secretary”. “But that’s my job”, was my unspoken thought. Within a few hours I was lord chancellor and secretary of state for justice.
As for my final ministerial move – out of government – there was an inevitability about that once it was clear that Boris Johnson was going to succeed Theresa May. I made no secret of the fact I would not serve under him and, to be fair, I am sure he was unenthusiastic about the idea, too. It meant I was spared the suspense but had the privilege of saying a proper goodbye to my department.
Not all of my former colleagues have been so fortunate. Some were demonstrably failing to cope with their responsibilities, others were unfortunate. My successor as lord chancellor, Robert Buckland, lost his position because a space needed to be found for Dominic Raab. Had the former foreign secretary abandoned his holiday earlier when the Taliban were advancing on Kabul, Buckland might still be a member of the cabinet.
What to make of the appointments? Liz Truss’s role as trade secretary has made her popular with the grassroots desperate for evidence of an economic rationale for Brexit. The Prime Minister might have been wary about promoting someone so ambitious to one of the great offices of state (Truss is now Foreign Secretary) but I suspect he thinks it is in his interests that it is not just the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who is discussed as a possible successor. It is never good for a prime minister to have only one obvious successor.
Raab’s return to the Ministry of Justice will be interesting and it is always good to see a lawyer become Lord Chancellor. His reputation from his previous spells in the department was that he was seen as demanding, more respected than liked, not a knee-jerk populist on criminal justice but was pretty hardline on the Human Rights Act. He may decide that he can make his mark by pushing for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights (as Dominic Cummings has advocated) which might play well with the right and the tabloids. Balancing the role of deputy prime minister with the specific responsibilities that come with being Lord Chancellor will bring its own challenges.
Michael Gove might have got one of the big offices of state – foreign secretary or home secretary – but now has a portfolio role that covers many of his interests. To what extent he will be able to make an impact on housing when planning reform appears to be jettisoned is unclear but he is the most effective Whitehall operator in the cabinet and might turn “levelling up” into something more than a slogan.
Oliver Dowden will presumably be the minister for the Today programme as a calm and reasonable explainer of government policy although his experience would have pointed towards him being the Whitehall fixer as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Meanwhile, Nadine Dorries will be under the most scrutiny as a surprise appointment to the cabinet.
What we did not see is the return of any senior ex-ministers. Jeremy Hunt, Greg Clark or Julian Smith would have strengthened the quality of the cabinet, as would Penny Mordaunt and Damian Hinds who are not at the top table.
Finally, the timing is curious. Party conference is only a few weeks away. When it comes to ministerial speeches boasting of their achievements, the most that they could credibly claim is that they have remembered the names of their directors general.
More importantly, the Spending Review is six weeks away. This should be the point at which a department’s strategy is aligned with its future spending capacity; the culmination of much deep thinking. With new secretaries of state and a new chief secretary to the Treasury, this is simply not going to happen – if, indeed, it ever was.