Sunak hinted at a grand vision for the government, but only cautious reshuffles

Cabinet reshuffles, especially those conducted early in a prime minister’s term, are usually ambitious agenda-setting, removing the clutter of the previous administration and specifying the new government’s ideological intentions. After the first reshuffle of a prime minister, the general political trajectory – both of the government and its party – is known to take on a predetermined quality. Broadsheet soothsayers waste no time in picking staff reshuffles and departmental reshuffles, as the foundations are laid for another level of government.

But as the dust settled on Tuesday morning’s Rishfel, commentators couldn’t quite agree on what that meant. The Times thinks the switch-up is a “significant signal” that Sunak has the “right priorities”; guardian, on the other hand, laments the return to an “ideologically driven austerity agenda”; And freedomIts John Rentoul felt that Rishfall had accomplished “enough administration to prepare for a Labor government”. Hardly an outbreak of steamrolling consensus in SWI.

As for the details of the reshuffle, perhaps the least interesting aspect is the appointment of former trade minister Greg Hands as the new Conservative Party chairman. The fate of BEIS was even more consequential, with the newly-departed department broken up and divided between highly rated ministers Grant Shapps, Michelle Donelan and Kemi Badenoch.

But observers say Sunak can’t agree on the nature and meaning of the shakeup. Instead of a great outlook for the next 18 months of the Sunakian regime, we wonder where Whitehall goes next as the election approaches. Thoughtful separation BEIS has been rejected by timidity in other areas, including the appointment of Lee Anderson as vice-chairman, in what looks like an attempt to dent the “bring back Boris” brigade.

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In the end, it’s rare for a reshuffle to be so roundly aggressive. Except for the obvious candidate in Jahawi, there were no real casualties, no one bothered by the resignation. The parties were flattered and the opposition appeased. All involved were either relegated to an equivalent brief, or vaulted upwards like Anderson and the new Secretary of State for Culture, Lucy Fraser. Everyone wins when Sunak calls.

This is curious, because cabinet changes are almost automatically about the Prime Minister’s powers and intentions. As posts are distributed according to the central vision, the reshuffle reminds MPs that departmental collaterals can be broken and it is the Prime Minister who First among equals — with emphasis on Primus. It is a wonder Michael Gove’s rejection of the report to remove it from the leveling-up brief on this constitutional truism.

Of course, you can see what Sunac got with the new changes. The Department of Energy and Net Zero, led by Grant Shapps, reversed the Johnson-era decision to scrap a separate energy ministry — a move seen dimly in light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The net zero shortfall then builds on the work of climate czar Chris Skidmore, who warned in a recent report that Britain risks falling behind on its environmental commitments.

Furthermore, the creation of a Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, to be headed by Michelle Donelan, signals caution in the outlook. Rishi Sunak has on several occasions discussed his determination to put technology at the heart of Britain’s growth agenda, turning Britain into “the next Silicon Valley”.

Beyond this headline creation, however, the new-look cabinet suggests little in the way of supreme Sunakian intentions. Among the long-time loyalists, John Glenn, Victoria Atkins and Oliver Dowden, who could hope to be promoted to Sunak’s second ministry. And as for the new Sunak-sponsored talent, there is only one appointee who still holds a public position — Ruth Edwards, who joins the whip’s office. A lack of new blood potentially creates the image of a tired, exhausted party.

But even without spending political capital on high-profile demotions and high-profile campaigns, Sunak’s rejig still limits future room for maneuver. Indeed, having taken the initiative to reshuffle his cabinet at this juncture, we probably can’t expect another reshuffle for some time yet – lest Sunac be seen as indecisive and autocratic. And if Greg Hands’ Tuesday afternoon email to his party membership is to be believed, British politics is 18 months away from a general election.

All of this begs the question: Will there be more timely opportunities for an ambitious government change, where new talent can be blooded and momentum seized? As things stand, it’s hard to see where such a reshuffle fits down the line.

But there’s a potentially more sinister truth behind this: because Sunak is not currently in a position to handle wholesale changes to his team. Appointing serial controversialist Lee Anderson as party vice-chair, who recently drew comparisons with Govt “Band on the Titanic”, risks coming across as seriously reactive. This comes as Sunak calculates that throwing red meat at the red wall might lead to whispers of “bring back Boris”. But appeasement may only leave Beijing clamoring for more of the restive MPs.

Probably the biggest winner The reshuffle includes Labour’s climate spokesman Ed Miliband, who has long been a shadow cabinet minister with no shadow. Now he will clash with Grant Shapps in the Commons – one wonders if Starmer will be happy with Miliband’s enhanced airtime.

But for Sunak, the real issue isn’t with the reshuffle defeated. Departmental changes are roundly aggressive and personnel changes are timid. Miliband was but one of many smiling at the end of the game. Seen in its entirety, the latest Rischfel underlines the constraints on the prime minister, enforced by his own party, as he ambulates the 18-month-long road to a general election.