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9 September 2021updated 12 Sep 2021 8:50pm

Why Boris Johnson’s reshuffle might be more trouble than it’s worth

Rumours of a shake-up in the Prime Minister’s top team have faded now the vote on hiking National Insurance has been won.

By Stephen Bush

Reshuffle… delayed? Reshuffle… imminent? Reshuffle… cancelled? That Conservative MPs had been asked to remain in Westminster, and civil servants were preparing for a change in certain departments, has triggered a great deal of speculation. But now well-placed sources are suggesting that the reshuffle won’t be today after all, while the Daily Mail’s Jason Groves and the Telegraph’s Chris Hope have both reported that any reshuffle today is deader than disco.  

A cynical observer might suggest that Downing Street’s flirtation with the idea of a reshuffle was all about yesterday’s vote on the hike to National Insurance, as there is no better way to cajole would-be rebels back into line than by suggesting there might be ministerial jobs on the way.  

But this isn’t the first time this year that the machinery of government has cranked into gear to facilitate a reshuffle only for it to be delayed or deferred. Most prime ministers hate doing it – Margaret Thatcher talked of “agonising” over removing ministers in her Women’s Own interview, which is more commonly remembered for her “no such thing as society” remark; Harold Macmillan referred to reshuffles as one of “the worst” duties of a prime minister in his diaries; and David Cameron sought to do them only rarely.  

This Prime Minister in particular dislikes disappointing people, and found the last reshuffle in early 2020 particularly bruising. It caused the unexpected and unwanted departure of Sajid Javid from the government, and the fallout from it started Johnson on his long, clandestine meetings with his allies on What To Do About Dominic Cummings.  

Added to that, the ministers currently in the frame to be moved or sacked (and remember, the prime minister can’t force someone to take a different job – if the minister refuses, the PM has to either give way in a humiliatingly public manner, or make a sacking they don’t want to make), be they Gavin Williamson, Priti Patel or Dominic Raab, all have one important thing in common: they are MPs from the right of the party whose reputations for ministerial competence might have, in recent days, weeks or months, taken a battering, but who do have supporters and a standing of their own.

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Boris Johnson’s government faces big battles ahead, not least following the painful end to the Universal Credit uplift in October. The big bet of any reshuffle is that the political benefits of increased competence on the front benches outweigh the political costs of having more fractious ex-ministers on the back benches. Some Conservative MPs are beginning to fear that, for Johnson, that bet will never be worth making, and that the reshuffle will always remain safely and conveniently over the horizon. Others fear the reshuffle will happen, and relatively soon and that the government’s difficulties will only increase as a result.  

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[see also: Both leaders are entering the new political season on the wrong side of their parties]