Rishi Sunak has reshuffled his cabinet following the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi as Conservative chair and has announced a wider reorganisation of his government.
As well as appointing Greg Hands as the new Tory chair – an unenviable task ahead of the local elections in May – Sunak has created four new government departments. The portfolio of Kemi Badenoch, the Trade Secretary, portfolio has been expanded to also include business, while Lucy Frazer, formerly housing minister, has been promoted to the cabinet to take on a revised culture, media and sport brief. Michelle Donelan has been moved from the latter to lead a new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Finally, Sunak’s long-standing ally Grant Shapps will lead a Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which aligns the government with Labour’s frontbench (Shapps will be shadowed by Ed Miliband).
What does the reshuffle tell us about the Prime Minister? Sunak’s hand was forced as he could no longer delay the appointment of a new party chairman. He has tried to turn Zahawi’s sacking to his advantage by framing the reshuffle as a “100-day reset” of his government, which is mired in crisis due to strikes, scandals and the squeeze on living standards. As one senior Tory put it to me last week: “It’s not been a case of dry January but rather goodbye January.”
That Sunak chose to avoid changes to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – which contains even more separate responsibilities than its name suggests – is a mark of his weakness. Housing is one of the most urgent issues facing the government.
Frazer was the 15th housing minister since 2010 and the fifth in eight months, which exposes Sunak to criticism that he doesn’t take the brief seriously. His reluctance to touch levelling up, after the debacle that was the latest funding round, suggests Sunak feared another unwelcome intervention by Boris Johnson.
The Whitehall reorganisation was touted as a refocus but in reality will simply mean moving civil servants around. The Liberal Democrats estimate that setting up four new departments will cost the government £60m – money they say could be spent on providing almost 25 million free school meals.
But the reshuffle has allowed Sunak to put his own stamp on government. As the Conservatives lose support in the business community to Labour, combining trade and business sends an important signal. A dedicated science and innovation department mirrors the rhetorical emphasis of Sunak and Hunt on job opportunities in tech.
The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero appears to be a U-turn, after the Conservatives merged the Department for Energy and Climate Change, created by Gordon Brown, with business in 2016 (as Ed Miliband has been swift to point out).
One problem remains unsolved, however. Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary, is still in post, though it is widely believed that the ongoing inquiry into bullying allegations against him will render his position untenable. That Sunak could be forced to reshuffle his top team once more in a few weeks’ time will only reinforce the impression of disorder and a lack of control at the centre.
[See also: Is any Tory capable of feeling shame?]