In a piece marking the 300th anniversary of the creation of the office of prime minister, Armando Iannucci questioned the supreme power of the role: “A British Prime Minister with a working majority exercises more power than any other leader in a major democracy.” A prime minister can certainly be powerful, but their supremacy stems from parliament, which they control through a working majority, not from the institutional strength of the role itself. In fact, the Commission for Smart Government has argued for the creation of a “prime minister’s department” precisely because a prime minister can lack significant institutional power.
What does give a prime minister strength is the power of patronage, and this is the missing link between the dominance identified by Iannucci and the limitations highlighted by the Commission. The ability to promote or demote people is how prime ministers dominate governments despite lacking a department, and how they use the cabinet to manage their parliamentary majorities. And that power is exercised in part by raising the prospect of and carrying out government reshuffles.
Reshuffle rumours have been reported by Westminster politicos and haunting/exciting (delete as applicable) Conservative MPs for months. The Prime Minister appears in need of a reshuffle but is resisting, hinting at one to his backbenchers while failing to deliver it. This confusion debilitates the government and leaves an untouched cabinet that reflects Johnson’s obsession with loyalty and electioneering over governing.
Currently, Johnson has three good reasons to reshuffle.
Second, there are a number of underperforming, unpopular ministers leading areas in which the Tories are particularly vulnerable (education and housing), meaning some ministerial demotions seem necessary. While the Institute for Government points out that frequent reshuffles can undermine ministers’ ability to master their brief, its associate director Tim Durrant told the New Statesman that the intensity of the past 18 months has meant “we have seen some ministers that are better at gripping things than others”. One Conservative MP concluded some ministers “frankly shouldn’t still be in place”.
Finally, a reshuffle may be vital to manage an uneasy party. Tory MPs’ feelings can be summarised by one saying that when backbenchers look at No 10, “I think most will feel distinctly nervous about both the lack of leadership from the Prime Minister and some of the personalities and personnel he has surrounded himself with.” With polls tightening, Johnson and Sunak’s ratings falling and a feeling that the government is producing more hot air than actual policy despite its considerable majority, a reshuffle-less summer will create more anxiety among Conservative MPs.
Johnson is, however, very willing to use the prospect of a reshuffle to keep back-bench hopefuls sweet and vulnerable ministers alert, and this, his biographer Andrew Gimson said, is “his difficulty”. By hinting at a reshuffle for too long without following through, Johnson is contributing to dangerous trends in Whitehall, in the cabinet and on the back benches.
In Whitehall, sources have reported a sense of “paralysis”, and Durrant told the New Stateman that No 10-led reshuffle rumours can “paralyse the work of government” as officials think they should prepare for new ministers.
For the cabinet, reshuffle rumours have similarly diverted ministers from their work. One MP said some ministers have “given up completely and are just waiting to hear if they are staying, moving or being dumped”, like Yes Minister’s Jim Hacker speculating about his prospects.
Most worrying for the Prime Minister is the effect of unfulfilled rumours on his back benches. It was reported that No 10 saw off rebels over cuts to foreign aid with offers of government jobs. If this is true, and such promises continue to go unfulfilled, discontent will only grow on the back benches. The New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush has argued that the biggest incentive for a reshuffle was bringing Sajid Javid, lost by Johnson at the last reshuffle, back into the fold. With Javid back, reshuffle hopes have faded. And with potentially controversial votes coming after the recess, such as on planning reforms, the absence of a reshuffle will raise the threat of rebellions from Tory backbenchers who, in re-electing the 1922 committee chair Graham Brady, a “serial rebel”, have signalled their continued independence from No 10.
Why, then, does Johnson not reshuffle? Normal prime ministerial fears of losing expertise through ministerial churn or making rivals of those demoted do not seem particularly relevant here; the pandemic has shown which ministers lack expertise, and Johnson remains without serious internal rivals. Johnson resists reshuffling due to his obsession with loyalty and electioneering, confirming wider worries about his premiership.
Having ridden out controversy over the Housing Secretary’s intervention in a controversial planning decision, bullying allegations against the Home Secretary, and the Education Secretary’s farcical handling of exams, Johnson, Gimson said, is desperate not to appear to be “pushed around by the media”. Having appointed his cabinet for their devoted loyalty to him, “he’s loyal to the people he’s appointed”.
This un-reshuffled cabinet, tainted by incompetence and unpopularity, may come to represent a government that lacked the ministerial competence to carry through any form of levelling up, leaving it with a desultory record. Speculation that Johnson plans to remove ministers only to deflect blame from himself in the event of further government crises is indicative of his being an electioneering rather than a governing prime minister.
Johnson’s issues, therefore, are not only an underperforming cabinet, a disgruntled party and a government paralysed by the prospect of a reshuffle. There are also genuine questions over whether his obsession with loyalty and electioneering can produce substantive policy results. If the answer is no, then Tory MPs may realise that, though their man can win an election, he has very few ideas about what to do next – something many secretly feared from the start.