Boris Johnson started his cabinet reshuffle with a problem: his political position is very weak, but it is generally agreed that changes need to be made in the whips’ office.
All the other moves are secondary to Johnson’s biggest need: to move Mark Spencer and Stuart Andrew out of the whips’ office and to put Chris Heaton-Harris and Chris Pincher in. The Prime Minister is far too weak to risk properly sacking anyone, which is why all the moves are either sideways or to rather nebulous roles. It’s not clear what Jacob Rees-Mogg’s new post as “minister for Brexit opportunities” will entail: “Brexit opportunities” are in reality the responsibility of the business secretary at a cabinet level.
The title reflects Rees-Mogg’s personal loyalty to Johnson: he is a cabinet minister whom the Prime Minister can move sideways without compromising his position. In that respect, it recalls Theresa May’s decision to move Damian Green, her closest cabinet ally, into the Cabinet Office and away from his department in June 2017: it was a move that ultimately allowed her to bring Michael Gove back from the wilderness and stabilise her government following the disastrous 2017 general election campaign.
Conservative MPs have been divided over who exactly is at fault for Downing Street’s persistent parliamentary problem. Was the problem caused by the Chief Whip, or the Prime Minister? Or, to use the cruder expression one MP uses: “Is the chief weak, or is the chief shit?”
For MPs of the “chief is shit” school, the problem was that Spencer, the Chief Whip (now kicked upstairs to replace Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons), lacked the requisite skills to do the job properly. MPs in marginal seats complained that they heard very little from the whips and that the whips’ office had little idea of the political strain they were under. The decision to instruct Tory MPs to vote to exonerate Owen Paterson further weakened relations between the whips’ office and the backbenches.
For others, the problem is that “the chief is weak”. You can be the best chief whip in the world, but if the prime minister won’t listen to you then it doesn’t matter. One former whip recently told me that the role of the whips is simply to ensure that there are no surprises: the prime minister of the day shouldn’t discover that the government doesn’t have the votes only when he or she is defeated in the Commons. When the government has a healthy majority, as this one does, the main role of the whips is providing political intelligence to No 10 and communicating the wishes of backbenchers. Doing that well requires both the whips and the prime minister to be able to listen.
By appointing Heaton-Harris as Chief Whip, Johnson has, as with the appointment of Steve Barclay as chief of staff, brought in someone who is popular among Conservative MPs. The assumption many Tory MPs are making is that Heaton-Harris, in addition to being well-suited to the role, will be able to do it better because the Prime Minister will be more inclined to listen to him.
If they’re right then Johnson might yet improve his weak position among Conservative MPs. But it is more likely that the real problem in Downing Street is not the officials or the whips, but the Prime Minister, and that Tory MPs are rapidly running out of displacement activities to avoid accepting that fact.