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8 February 2023

What was the point of Sunak’s reshuffle?

The Prime Minister’s reorganisation of four departments has been met with bafflement.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Rishi Sunak‘s snap decision to reshuffle his top team and reorganise some Whitehall departments has left most people in Westminster baffled. The shake-up scatters responsibilities across four new departments, at a time when the government appears to have no grip on what’s going on around it, and the Tories are lagging 26 points behind Labour in some polls.

The reorganisation will cost money, has weakened Sunak’s position and, with his deputy Dominic Raab at the mercy of a bullying investigation, the Prime Minister may be forced back to the drawing board in a matter of weeks anyway.

And as Andrew Marr points out in New Statesman today, the switcharound also does not solve the Prime Minister’s central problem: the directionlessness of post-Brexit Britain.

The appointment of Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield who touts himself as a culture warrior, as the Conservative Party’s deputy chairman has proved particularly controversial. Ask any Red Wall MP and they will tell you their members are “delighted” the former Labour councillor has a front-line role. They believe he “connects” with voters and is unafraid to aggressively tackle Labour on so-called wedge issues such as immigration, Brexit and on trans people.

He is a divisive figure, having boycotted England football matches over players taking the knee. Anderson is also nicknamed “30p Lee”, after his ridiculous claim that people struggling with the cost of living could survive on meals that cost 30p a day – a feast of folly that Anoosh spat out effectively last year. MPs fighting more traditional true-blue seats think Anderson will turn off moderate swing voters and embarrass them during broadcast appearances.

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But as David Maddox points out in the Daily Express, Anderson’s presence on the front bench has an important political function. It deprives the troublesome Bring Back Boris brigade of a potentially vocal supporter. With the Chelsea and Fulham MP Greg Hands made chairman, Anderson balances the ticket. But his elevation is also symbolic of Sunak refusal to bow to demands by the Tories’ Northern Research Group of MPs for the creation of a minister for the north.

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The most intriguing aspect of the reshuffle is that Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, was reportedly Sunak’s first choice for the new role of science and technology minister, but he refused the move. As Jennifer Williams reveals in the FT today, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt is blocking capital spending for levelling-up projects. Is Gove staying to fight or take the blame?

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

[See also: Rishi Sunak, the man who isn’t there]