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26 October 2022

Rishi Sunak’s cabinet exposes how weak he is

The Prime Minister has chosen a combination of old faces and factional enemies for his front bench.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak is now firmly installed at No 10 after spending last night (25 October) forming his first cabinet. Ordinarily, a new prime minister will use a reshuffle to stamp their authority on government, clear out the dead wood and reward loyalists. But far from bolstering his position, the former chancellor’s “Rishuffle” highlighted the weak position the hastily appointed premier finds himself in, and the miserable compromises that lie ahead. There are three general themes.

Firstly, the refreshed front bench is full of faces from the Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Theresa May eras. Nadhim Zahawi, Grant Shapps, Thérèse Coffey and Gavin Williamson all return. Dominic Raab even gets his old job back as Deputy PM.

Faced with an economic crisis, a Labour Party light years ahead in the polls and rancorous internal divisions, Sunak has chosen not to gamble on next-generation talent and instead opted for experience. Notable exceptions to this are Kemi Badenoch, who stays as Trade Secretary, Gillian Keegan, who is promoted to Education Secretary, and Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary.

In an echo of Blairite Peter Mandelson’s return to Gordon Brown’s under-pressure cabinet in 2008, the Conservatives’ most talented minister, Michael Gove, is back in charge of the levelling-up department – a brief that will be key to the Tories’ general election campaign.

[See also: Labour demands investigation into Rishi Sunak’s comments on taking money from “deprived urban areas”]

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Secondly, while Sunak was the choice of a vast majority of MPs, he is as hobbled by factional conflicts as his predecessors. A glaring example of this is the return of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary – a minister forced to resign only last week after breaking the ministerial code by sharing official documents on a private email. The PM promoted her despite pledging “integrity and accountability”, and Labour’s attack – that Sunak struck a “grubby deal” with Braverman to stop her supporting Johnson in the latest leadership race – might just stick.

It could be a serious misstep. The Home Secretary, a key figure on the right, could damage Sunak if she chooses to quit. And the PM may need to compromise on immigration if the government wants to improve the UK’s economic outlook. Conversely, blame for the government’s despised Rwanda deportation scheme, which is expensive, ineffectual and deeply controversial, can be laid at Braverman’s door should it go awry.

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Sunak also had no choice but to keep Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor – an unusual predicament for a new PM – and nor did he have the authority to move two figures who publicly backed Johnson over the weekend – the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace – both of whom are respected and well-liked across the party.

The front bench contains no fewer than five former chief whips – perhaps a sign that Sunak is fretting about party discipline. That his leadership rival Penny Mordaunt was refused a promotion to one of the great offices of state, and was instead made to focus on parliamentary business as Commons Leader, is a further hint Sunak may feel a little insecure in Downing Street.

And thirdly, though Sunak is the first Asian to become prime minister, the lack of diversity in his cabinet is notable. By my count, attending it are five black and ethnic minority MPs (16 per cent) and just six women (19 per cent), 20 ministers who went to private school (65 per cent), and 17 (55 per cent) who went to either Oxford or Cambridge. This is despite the Social Mobility Commission’s estimate that 7 per cent of people in Britain went to private school and less than 1 per cent graduated from Oxbridge.

This is a cabinet stuffed with fixers, battle-hardened old hands and the standard bearers for various Tory factions. Sunak’s selection is painfully aware that the Conservatives face a relegation dogfight not a campaign for the title, and that when it comes to exercising power he is on a tight leash.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s ruthless streak should worry Labour]

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