Sunak’s reshuffle was long overdue – and the prime minister’s even more so

Since the time of Harold Macmillan (if not earlier), the reshuffle has been the accepted method by which prime ministers keep hacks excited and MPs loyal. Speculation about who is up or down fills column inches and starts backbench gossip. The obligatory shot of ministers being processed in Downing Street is one of the constants of our political life.

So why Rishi Sunak’s unrelenting approach yesterday is surprising. The TV gauntlet introducing the new cabinet ministers via e-mail at 11 AM completely negated the occasion for the drama. The prime minister compounded the sin by establishing new departments – for energy security and net zero, business and commerce, and culture, media and sport – while receiving wisdom suggested his days were over. Row comments about deckchairs and the Titanic.

All this is rather unfair. The Annoying reaction Sunak’s low-key reshuffle in the political entertainment industry shows many are still unaccustomed to a prime minister more interested in quietly delivering than feeding SW1 soap operas. Yesterday’s reshuffle was a clear attempt to focus Whitehall on its priorities. The question is whether it should have been done at all, but whether it was enough.

Those suggesting that Sunak is wasting time can point to an analysis by the Institute for Government. They suggested merging the two departments or setting up a new one would cost around £15 million, with productivity falling by around a fifth for a year. If Sunk wants to spend the next year based on his five priorities, surely this is an unwelcome distraction?

The Prime Minister’s response, I would imagine, is that these changes are long overdue. Edward Heath first established the Department of Energy in January 1974, in late 1973 as a result of the Arab-Israeli war. Shapps already spends 90 percent of his time on energy as business secretary.

Sunak expressed his desire to create a division for fuel supply in the summer. Weaning yourself off foreign fossil fuels and increasing domestic energy production is a priority, whether you’re a net zero zealot or not (don’t worry bros – it’s dead as the dodo). Sunak is right to give the minister the focus he wants.

Similarly, the Department of International Trade was a ministry that began to increase its usefulness. It was created by Theresa May partly to buy off Liam Fox and partly to create the infrastructure needed to sign a trade deal after 45-odd years on the back of Common External Tariffs. Boris Johnson retained it for that reason, but also gave Liz Truss the job of keeping him out of the country – a role that later moved to the Foreign Office.

Brexit is now done. We have also signed trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand; An agreement with India, and membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are on the way. Most modern trade agreements require highly technical and specific negotiations on domestic controls, noted former Trus adviser Ben Ramanauskas.

Merging trade with business makes sense, especially when it comes to the inevitable turf wars with the Home Office, DEFRA and the Treasury as it gives the department greater balance. Likewise, stripping culture, media and sport of digital elements relegates the ministry to the ‘Department of Fun’ adopted by John Major. This allowed Sunak to create a ministry focused on science and innovation, two things he has long maintained would do more to increase our long-term growth rate than cutting taxes.

Sunak’s choices are therefore highly plausible – raising the question of why he didn’t go further. Our deputy editor has long argued for breaking up a Home Office that grapples with security, policing and managing immigration. Stan Westlake and Dominic Cummings – boo, hiss – are two who have suggested that Sunak should do what Tony Blair never did and cut the Treasury’s Gordian knot.

But he can only spin so many plates. To meet the presidents, transfer the backlog, and half the series island of love To catch up, there comes a point where Whitehall desk-suffling becomes all-consuming, rather than a difficult but necessary choice in the interests of delivery.