‘What’s behind the Boris reshuffle?’, Unherd, 16 September 2021.

“When I hear the word culture”, Josef Goebbels is supposed to have said, “I reach for my gun.” Boris Johnson, on the other hand, merely reaches for whoever he reckons will most rub the so-called metropolitan liberal elite up the wrong way.

One would have thought that Oliver Dowden was doing a fairly good job of pursuing the Government’s forever “war on woke”. But obviously not. The reshuffle saw Olive, as the former Statues (sorry, Culture) Secretary (now party co-Chairman) is known to his friends, summarily replaced by the preternaturally plain-speaking Nadine Dorries. She was known by her enemies as the woman who once suggested equal marriage was something which only “metro elite gay activists” aspired to and called Messrs Cameron and Osborne “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.

Whether Ms Dorries, before accepting his commission, quizzed Mr Johnson on precisely how much he paid when he last popped out for a pint of semi-skimmed is, sadly, not recorded, although, if precedent is anything to go by, we will eventually find out. Indeed, many of the most delicious moments in contemporary histories of recent premierships are provided by their accounts of the often cack-handed attempts of their hapless heroes to inject fresh blood and get rid of dead wood.

Normally, it’s the sackings that afford the most entertainment: May’s “elder sister” slaying of George Osborne is an absolute classic of the genre — not least because it came back to bite her big time when the former Chancellor became editor of the Evening Standard, from which perch he took great delight in proving that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold (and, in his case, that meant very, very cold indeed).

This time around, however, it’s the appointments that are more intriguing. In part, that’s because the reshuffle’s two most obvious victims were (a) long-destined for the chop and (b) not particularly interesting or heavyweight politicians.

It would be hard, for instance, to find many people sad to see Gavin Williamson depart Education after what teachers, students and pupils (not to mention their parents) have been put through during the pandemic. And the now-former Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick (cruelly dubbed “Robert Generic” by his detractors), was better known for bending lockdown rules, greenlighting a Tory donor’s questionable construction project, bunging big grants to towns with Tory MPs, and going on telly to defend the indefensible than he was for building more houses.

Their replacements, however, are rather more interesting. Nadhim Zahawi will, of course, be criticised for having no direct experience of state schooling, but may well be given the benefit of the doubt, at least initially, as a result of his impressive performance as Vaccines Minister and because he’s that most unusual of top Tories – someone with a BSc (Chemical Engineering, UCL) rather than an Oxford PPE.

Even more interesting, is Michael Gove’s move to MHCLG. This is not a ministry normally given to a big-hitter with a reputation (at least among civil servants) for competence as well as the ability to present a parliamentary and Cabinet case.

His appointment suggests – encouragingly – that Johnson realises that he can’t merely give up fundamental planning reform as a bad job and hope the problem goes away. And, while it may be true (Gove’s many fans would even say tragic) that his neo-con worldview and concerns about his reliability (perhaps expressed most shockingly and openly a few years ago by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace) mean Gove is unlikely ever to be awarded one of the great offices of state (Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary), his decision to accept the challenge — which apparently includes converting the PM’s “levelling up” rhetoric into reality – is nonetheless significant.

The test, of course, will be whether he can achieve anything without simultaneously losing friends and alienating people (including voters) – a test he clearly flunked when he was Cameron’s controversial Education Secretary.

But if Gove is something of an ideologue, he has nothing, at least on that score, on Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary — the first Conservative woman (and only the second woman ever) to occupy that post. And in some ways that (plus the fact that the Tory grassroots’ favourite free-market zealot was seen by those who get off on Global Britain as having done well in the International Trade brief) may be half the point.

At the FCDO, Truss has effectively been parked somewhere where her Britannia Unchained, Singapore-on-Thames shtick isn’t going to interfere too much with Boris Johnson’s rather more pragmatic, interventionist, and supposedly One Nation brand of Toryism. Meanwhile, her replacement at DIT, Brexity former International Development Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is seen as a reasonably safe pair of hands, although without Truss’s infamous flair for publicity. That said, anyone (can there still be anyone?) dreaming of a trade deal with China on her watch might be well advised invest their hopes elsewhere.

Truss replaces Dominic Raab – surely the most high-profile casualty of this reshuffle, which may seem like an odd thing to say about the new Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor after he was compensated with the formal title of Deputy Prime Minister. But let’s be honest: Franklin Roosevelt’s Veep, “Cactus Jack” Garner famously dismissed the vice presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss”; well, whatever is worth less than warm piss, that’s basically what the office of DPM is worth.

He knows it. Johnson knows it. We all know it. The fact that he was offered it at all is testimony only to the fact that, unlike some of the others who were demoted (Williamson, Jenrik, former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and the Boris-uber-loyalist, former co-Chairman, Amanda Milling) No 10 couldn’t be entirely sure that Raab would go quietly – or, indeed, remain relatively quiet on the backbenches in the hope of a return to government (or, more likely, a seat in the Lords) in years to come.

Quite what Raab’s fellow lawyers will make of him, however, will be interesting to see. There would seem to be little chance of him going native – he was after all the first Tory during the 2019 leadership contest to promote proroguing parliament as a route out of what was then the Brexit impasse. If anything, they may want to buckle up for a bumpy ride: Raab’s combination of natural aggression and neoliberalism means he may be far more inclined than his predecessor to pick a fight with what he’ll no doubt see as the sector’s “producer groups”.

In the end, however, although we’re bound to be distracted by who’s up and who’s down, perhaps we should pay more attention to three politicians who have stuck around. Priti Patel clearly remains too totemic to shift from the Home Office: even if she can’t stop those migrants coming across the Channel in small boats she can bang on about them like no-one else, helping to ensure no space opens up on the Conservatives’ flank for a post-Farage populist right. David Frost is still what passes for the PM’s brain on Brexit. And Rishi Sunak is not just too popular to move; his reputation as a fiscal hawk (doubtless something he’ll burnish this autumn) also provides some much needed reassurance to the party’s bog-standard backbench Thatcherites that Johnson, for all his strengths as an election-winner, hasn’t led the Tories entirely off the small-state straight and narrow.

Originally published at https://unherd.com/2021/09/will-the-reshuffle-save-boris/

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