Liz Truss is surely about to be made the UK’s fourth Tory prime minister in six years. She will replace Boris Johnson after pledging, to the Conservative Party members that will elect the new leader today (5 September), a radical tax-cutting agenda. Meanwhile, Britons prepare themselves for the biggest fall in living standards in generations.
The Foreign Secretary faces an uphill struggle to unite not just the country but her party, after the leadership contest unleashed a summer of Conservative infighting. But who could be in her first cabinet?
Chancellor of the Exchequer
A lengthy recession, the cost-of-living crisis and double-digit inflation: whoever takes over at the Treasury has a nightmare in-tray to contend with. Given the way the leadership race exposed divisions between Rishi Sunak and cabinet colleagues, Truss will want a loyalist in No 11 – someone who shares her outlook on the economy.
The Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, who co-authored the Britannia Unchained book with Truss, is the hot favourite to be appointed as chancellor. A small-state free marketeer, he will be tasked with balancing the new PM’s tax cut pledges with implementing an energy bills bailout and funding public services – and cutting the huge backlogs in the NHS.
This is a big one. Truss’s successor as foreign secretary will have a leading role in the West’s response to the war in Ukraine. The Foreign Office has become even more important in recent years following its merger with the Department for International Development in 2020. Truss has said she wants to look again at the government’s security and foreign policy, which was set out in the Integrated Review last year. Plus, she wants to designate China a “threat” to national security. As a consequence, the new foreign secretary will have influence over UK foreign policy in the immediate and long term.
The Education Secretary, James Cleverly, is poised to take the role. Until the exodus of ministers that brought down Johnson in July, Cleverly was the minister for Europe and North America, and before that he had responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa.
Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is also one to watch. Tugendhat hasn’t held a ministerial position before but his strong performance in the leadership election has increased his chances of securing a key job in the department. Tugendhat, the founder of the China Research Group of MPs, shares Truss’s hard line on China.
Truss has doubled down on the controversial Rwanda deportation policy and vowed to make tackling crime a top priority, with violent crime still prevalent and rises in fraud. But it’s unlikely the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, will keep her job, as she is tipped to become party chair. The incoming PM is thought to favour the Attorney General, Suella Braverman. The Brexiteer, who was briefly a candidate to be Tory leader herself, is a hard-line right-winger and will be handed responsibility for stopping the flow of illegal migrants over the English Channel. Braverman is on record as saying she has “significant reservations” about the UK remaining part of the European Court of Human Rights.
Clearing the NHS backlog will be the biggest task facing the new health secretary. According to figures from August, 6.7 million people are waiting for treatment. In England, the number of people who have waited more than a year for treatment is 186 times higher than before the pandemic. Addressing this will be key to the success of Truss’s government.
Who will Truss entrust with this responsibility? Known for his ability to run a department, Sunak is rumoured to be an option. But he has played down the prospect of joining Truss’s cabinet because he doesn’t agree with her economic policies. Other people in the running include the current Chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, who could draw on his experience as the former vaccine minister.
Despite exam results showing a widening north-south divide and teachers threatening to strike over pay, education rarely featured in the leadership debates. Among the most eye-catching policies announced by Truss was lifting the ban on new grammar schools, imposed by Tony Blair in 1998. Her education secretary will face fierce opposition to this, as grammars are widely viewed as elitist and likely to damage the prospects of poorer children.
Kemi Badenoch, who does not shy away from a culture-war fight, has been tipped for the role. She and Truss served together as ministers in the Equalities Office and share gender-critical views. Some fear, however, that Badenoch could end up mired in controversy should she choose to do battle with universities over “woke” issues. Former post-holders such as Zahawi and Michelle Donelan would be safer choices.
This one should be easy. Most people in Westminster expect Ben Wallace to stay in post. Wallace kept his powder dry by not entering the leadership election. Plus, he’s exceptionally popular with Conservative Party members, and has been widely credited with marshalling the UK’s robust response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A safe bet.
Higher defence spending will be a key issue. Truss has committed to increase defence spending to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030, part of which will be spent on a new generation of Dreadnought submarines to carry the country’s nuclear deterrent. Watch out for cabinet debates over how the new spending will be funded and what it will be spent on.
The current Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, was Rishi Sunak’s enthusiastic attack dog and as a result is widely reported to be facing the sack. But the Ministry of Justice does require an experienced minister given the backlog of court cases because of Covid, record low prosecution rates for rape, and with barristers striking over pay.
Brandon Lewis, an early backer of Truss, is in the frame. He is a qualified barrister, viewed as a strong media performer and, crucially, backs the Foreign Secretary over the row with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol – Brussels is threatening legal action because the government is not enforcing the checks on goods entering Northern Ireland, as required by the terms of Brexit.
Businesses have not been protected from energy bill rises, while the trade barriers created by Brexit continue to take their toll. Helping firms with the transition to net zero and creating jobs in the process, will be key challenges for the incoming business secretary, if Truss is to deliver on her pledge to grow the UK economy. With Kwarteng likely to become the next chancellor, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke is seen as Truss’s top choice.
Despite serving under Sunak, Clarke spoke out against Sunak’s plans for the economy in favour of Truss’s tax-cutting agenda. Having Clarke, the MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, at the cabinet table could also help Truss hang on to the Red Wall won by Boris Johnson. Jacob Rees-Mogg has also been associated with the job.
Nadine Dorries has been ruthless in painting Sunak as a traitor to Johnson and, according to reports, will be offered the chance to stay on as Culture Secretary. It likely means no U-turn on the privatisation of Channel 4 and that the BBC-bashing will continue – Dorries is already pressing for reform of the licence fee. The Culture Secretary has also been trying to get more arts funding spent outside London, a policy that could form part of Truss’s levelling-up offer at the next election.
Grant Shapps’s short-lived leadership bid was followed by an endorsement for Sunak. But in recent weeks, the Transport Secretary has gone to ground, perhaps hoping he can cling on as a cabinet minister under Truss. Tories like his hard-line stance with rail unions and he is viewed as a competent frontbencher – but Truss has a long list of supportive MPs she would like to reward with promotions. The incoming PM has backed the Northern Powerhouse Rail project in full, which would include restoring the high-speed line from Manchester to Leeds that was cut last November. But her commitment to HS2 is less clear. Badenoch’s name has been connected with the brief.
Will levelling up survive a Liz Truss premiership? It seems unlikely (read why Boris Johnson’s flagship policy is poised to slip into the background). Nonetheless, Truss has vowed to press on. Her new levelling-up secretary will look after the various funds created for levelling up (the Towns Fund, the Community Renewal Fund, the Levelling Up Fund). Whether Truss keeps her Northern Powerhouse Rail promise also pertains to the levelling-up project. Truss’s commitment to tax cuts over public spending puts these plans in jeopardy. Oh, and there’s also the housing crisis.
The incumbent, Greg Clark, stepped in after Michael Gove asked Boris Johnson to resign and was sacked. Clark is poised to be replaced, possibly by the arch-Trussite and aforementioned Simon Clarke, who in addition to working in the Treasury, is also a former minister for regional growth and local government.
Trade in the UK has taken a severe hit, from Brexit and the pandemic. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that both imports and exports are down. Truss made her name as a trade secretary, signing deals that were criticised as cutting and pasting the existing agreements Britain had as a member of the EU. But future deals with the US and India will be huge prizes for the new trade secretary (and, indeed, the new prime minister and foreign secretary). Johnson hoped to have finalised the deal with India by October – negotiations were ongoing. Some rumours suggest Truss will keep Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the current holder, in post.
Work and pensions secretary
The new work and pensions secretary will oversee the government’s biggest public service department; responsibilities include administering pensions and working age and disability benefits. The cost-of-living crisis only makes this job more important. Debate over the best way to target support for those in need often covers discussions of an increase in benefits such as Universal Credit. The current minister, Thérèse Coffey, is a close ally of Truss, and therefore could be about to take up a more prominent role – which would leave a vacancy in this department.
Sewage. Heat waves. Climate change. The environment, food and rural affairs secretary will have their plate full. The current one, George Eustice, isn’t expected to retain his position but it isn’t clear who his replacement will be. Placing 16th in the ministerial rankings, roles like this may be used to manage party unity or reward the prime minister’s more junior backers. Ranil Jayawardena, who worked on Truss’s campaign and with her at the trade department, has been suggested as a fit.
Most MPs threw their weight behind Sunak’s candidacy, meaning heavyweights such as Gove are headed to the backbenches. Therefore, rebellions and outbreaks of “blue-on-blue” party infighting seem inevitable. As the cabinet minister in charge of shoring up support for controversial votes, the chief whip will need to be someone Truss can rely on completely. Coffey, her closest confidante, is in line for the position. Persuading Sunak-backers to support Truss’s plan to slash spending and cut taxes will be a difficult task.