Boris Johnson’s first reshuffle is underway. The big story overnight is that this will be a reshuffle crafted with one eye on the next one, in which the junior ministerial ranks will be cleared out (or refreshed, if you’re feeling kind) in order to conduct a bigger reshuffle later down the line.
But the most consequential decision in terms of government policy may well have already been made: the sacking of Julian Smith as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Smith’s dismissal is being seen as inexplicable across Westminster because he succeeded where his predecessors failed in negotiating a return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
Actually the main reason why power-sharing returned was the message sent to the DUP and Sinn Féin by voters in Northern Ireland, who in the 2019 election turned away from both parties in part due to their prolonged failure to restore a government. But Julian Smith established himself as the first secretary of state in years, arguably since Labour left office, to be respected across Northern Ireland’s political firmament; and the first since David Cameron left office to not be regarded as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DUP at best or Karen Bradley at worst.
Yet the decision to sack Smith is not inexplicable: it’s a sign of a major policy breach between him and Downing Street, and one that has major implications for Northern Ireland and for the next phase of the Brexit talks.
One way that Smith helped to usher in the restoration of power-sharing was by making vital concessions on prosecutions for members of British armed forces accused of atrocities. This is a cause dear to many Conservative MPs’ hearts but it puts the government on a collision course with many in Northern Ireland and with the Irish government, regardless of what form of administration emerges from coalition talks.
That has two consequences. Firstly, I wouldn’t be shocked if it means that the return of power-sharing at Stormont proves to be brief. The second is that it will make the negotiations on the exact shape of the Northern Ireland protocol – which will run concurrently with the next stage of the Brexit talks – more fraught.
The headlines on this reshuffle will be about the appointments and big beasts. But make no mistake, the sacking of Smith is of far greater importance than anything else Boris Johnson will do today.