Wouldn’t it be nice to get on with your neighbours? In effectively sacking his Chancellor during last week’s reshuffle, the prime minister has made it very clear, he’s got no room for savers. But enough of the Small Faces (if you are old or odd enough to get the reference).
Last week’s reshuffle was pretty spectacular, more smash and grab than Macmillan’s Night of the Long Knives in 1962. Following a number of significant personnel changes announced in the morning, Sajid Javid strolled up Downing Street and into No. 10 smiling as the press looked on, surely anticipating a short meeting with the prime minister.
In what turned out to be a meeting long enough to arouse suspicion in the lobby of Westminster hacks, the Chancellor was offered the chance to stay on in No. 11, providing he sacked his entire team of advisors. ‘Johnson’s Choice’? As audacious as it was Machiavellian, Javid rejected the prime minister’s proposal.
Immediate speculation pointed to master puppeteer and the PM’s senior advisor Dominic Cummings, who holds little regard for Javid or his team. Cummings infamously sacked one of the former Chancellor’s advisers before having her frogmarched out of Downing Street by the police following accusations of a leak from next door. Javid was said to have taken this assumption of authority personally, causing a breakdown in the relationship between No. 10 and the Treasury.
The power grab by No. 10 could represent a seismic shift in tax and spend policy, with initial suggestions that the budget on 11 March, could have been delayed. Sajid Javid was known to be keen on keeping a tight grip on the country’s finances and committed to delivering a budget surplus by the end of the current parliament. Ever the hardnosed strategist, it is likely that Dominic Cummings would argue continued austerity was diametrically opposed to Boris Johnson’s desire to cement his blue bricks of new Tory voters in the crumbled ‘Red Wall’ of the midlands and northern England.
Enter Rishi Sunak. Until recently you would be forgiven for having never heard of him outside the Westminster bubble. Mr Sunak’s career trajectory follows that of Intern to CEO in less than two years, having only been appointed as a Junior Minister to MHCLG in 2018. He has been seen as a ‘rising star’ in the party, with seemingly few opinions of his own and perceived as a strong media performer – Sunak stood in for the prime minister during the election debates Johnson failed to turn up for.
The new Chancellor and No. 10 will now share a set of advisors, with Sunak seen as a capable fiscal operator, with less of an emphasis on reducing government debt than his predecessor. This is however no panacea to the financial bind the government could find itself in on tax and spend. Ahead of the budget, Johnson and Sunak will need to decide whether they will break manifesto commitments to not raise tax or borrow and add to national debt.
As ever, following the money will be the interesting part. The government gave the go-ahead last week to the controversial HS2 upgrade, a move which could cause party loyalties to fray and a rebellion on the government’s backbenches. Does this signal more infrastructure projects? Possibly quite literally further up the track in the Conservative’s new territory won from Labour? If so, Sunak will need to hit the ground at a healthy sprint if he is to deliver a new budget reflecting this shift, now confirmed for 11 March.
In MHCLG we got news of our tenth Housing Minister in ten years, with Esther McVey sacked from her role to be replaced by Christopher Pincher. The MP for Tamworth’s record on housing is one that may appeal to the neoliberal wing of the Conservative party in having previously voted against housing welfare benefits being linked to market prices and reducing housing benefit to social tenants. Will the new minister’s outlook chime with the party’s constituent of working class voters who will tend to put greater stock in higher spending and state intervention? Or will Pincher provoke a conflict that sees another short lived tenure in the Ministry?
In terms of the other changes, in any other reshuffle, they would have taken the headlines. The Spectator’s ‘Minister of the Year’ and Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith was sacked having seemingly achieved the impossible and brokered a return to power sharing in the Stormont Assembly after three years of stalemate. His concessions on historic prosecutions against British Soldiers during the Troubles in securing agreement in Belfast have met with outrage amongst some in the Conservative Party. His replacement in Brandon Lewis, as with new Attorney General Suella Braverman who comes in for the sacked Geoffrey Cox, arguably represent promotions motivated by political loyalty above all else.
Whether this new Cabinet has the ability to remain united and deliver stability in the most fraught point in the UK’s recent history, is something we are all about to find out.