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17 September 2021

Boris Johnson reshuffled his cabinet based on two criteria – and not the ones you think

This was not the Carrie Johnson reshuffle many were expecting.

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has all but completed his reshuffle, with only the most junior posts to be handed out. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the one thing this wasn’t was the Carrie Johnson reshuffle that Dominic Cummings had convinced himself it would be. Instead, this was a reshuffle in which Boris Johnson turned up the volume on culture wars by putting Oliver Dowden in as party chair and Nadine Dorries in at Culture.

But it was also a reshuffle in which Johnson promoted MPs who ticked not one but two boxes: genuine loyalty to him, and ones who are seen in Downing Street to be effective – administrators and ministers who will get things done. 

That is even more true if you consider the ‘real’ start date of this reshuffle to be 8 January 2021, when, shortly after the exit of Cummings, another early Johnson supporter Kwasi Kwarteng was promoted to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy brief. The climate crisis is obviously the most important policy challenge facing the UK and the world, but it is also a major electoral challenge because of the importance voters across the political divide place on it.

In Kwarteng, Johnson ensured he had a politician who had earned his trust and who he believed could get things done; just as he has with Liz Truss at the Foreign Office and Nadhim Zahawi at Education. Dorries, for all that anyone with any liberal sentiments at all will find objectionable about her, is perceived to have done well as a junior minister at Health. (As one civil servant in the department quipped to me: “When she started, I thought she was crazy and would be useless – I don’t think she’s useless anymore!”)

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At the Department of Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, and the Department for Health, Johnson has secretaries of state who were relatively late to support him, such as Thérèse Coffey, or actively opposed him, like Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, but who are seen by Downing Street as people who can get results. And that pattern holds at ministers of state level. Figures like Neil O’Brien at local government, Robin Walker as schools minister and Gillian Keegan, who moves from skills to care, all backed Theresa May and voted for her deal but are seen as competent ministers, and are now in posts that absolutely have to get things done.

The reshuffle it most reminds me of is Tony Blair’s in 2001: just as Blair had to accommodate Gordon Brown and his allies, there are people whose continuation in post is as much about the limitations on Johnson’s power (frankly, there has never been a plausible universe in which Johnson would be able to move, let alone sack, Priti Patel). But in the core roles, Johnson has put people he trusts in at the big, agenda-delivering and vote-winning departments. That was the reshuffle in which Blair famously told four of his reformers – David Blunkett at the Home Office, Stephen Byers at Transport, Estelle Morris at Education and Alan Milburn at Health – that they were there for the whole parliament.

In the end, despite Blair’s hopes, he was unable to keep any of them for the full length of his second ministry. Johnson will hope that his new government, essentially a de facto new, post-pandemic administration, is able to stay in place, and that “events” don’t once again knock his government off course and into difficulty.

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[Hear also: “Schemers never prosper”: inside Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle]