Already, Sunak’s Cabinet appointments have made quickly apparent the focus and direction of his government. As our Editor pointed out only a couple of days ago, who the new Prime Minister has picked to have at the top table has made clear that he sees the only path to Tory success in 2024 as putting our Red Wall coalition back together. The mission is clear: keeping those ex-Labour voters who backed us due to Corbyn, Brexit, and Johnson’s campaigning onside by delivering genuine change in their communities.
That is much harder to do when the market environment is forcing cuts to budgets – as is rumoured – of 10 to 15 per cent. If Levelling Up means anything, it means shovelling money up from the South to the North. Unfortunately for Michael Gove, pax Liam Byrne, there is no money left. Nonetheless, the Government is much more than just the Cabinet. His junior ministerial appointments highlight the route by which Sunak hopes to reach his Red Wall goal – and how he puts experience before his predecessor’s emphasis on loyalty.
Consequently, we have seen several ministers imitating Gove, Barclay, and Raab and return to a department at which they have previously served. Nick Gibb, for example, is back at Education. Jesse Norman is back at Transport, despite having just been appointed to the Foreign Office. Ed Argar, after spending a week or so as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is back at Justice, a department he spent a year at under May and Johnson. Maria Caulfield is back at Health, where she also served under Johnson.
What Sunak is aiming to do with these appointments is to have ministers who know their briefs and departments and who will not need time to get up to speed. By doing so, he is hoping to grip the government machine (as the old cliché goes) and focus on delivery. There is no time for fresh faces or approaches. With only two years until the next election, the Government needs to demonstrate a sorely-missed capacity for competence, not innovation.
Experience can come in many forms. So Gibb is joined at Education by Robert Halfon, who had chaired the Education Select Committee for five years after being the Minister of State for Skills for a year under May. Similarly, after three months warming the backbenches, George Freeman has been appointed a Minister of State at BEIS. Freeman is a passionate advocate for science, and has previously spent three years in a variety of ministerial roles relating to it.
His appointment also points to another concern Sunak is addressing. Freeman backed Mordaunt both this summer and last week. His decision to step back from her and throw himself behind Sunak helped kill the momentum that could have taken her into the final two. By rewarding him with a post, Sunak is not only saying an oblique form of thank you, but is showing MPs that he will reward knowledge and talent in the party, whenever (and however forcefully) their conversion to Sunakdom came.
That is why he appointed John Lamont, another Mordaunt backer, to the Scottish Office. He kept Dehenna Davision, a prominent Truss advocate and fellow Taylor Swift devotee, as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at Levelling Up. Graham Stuart remains as Minister of State for Climate, despite his having backed Ben Wallace, Grant Shapps, and Truss before finally concluding Sunak was the right man for the job in time for his election.
Prime Ministerial patronage has not only been lavished on Sunak’s former opponents, however. Braverman has been joined at the Home Office by Robert Jenrick, who, alongside Sunak and Oliver Dowden, was one of the up-and-coming young ministers who backing was s crucial to Johnson in 2019. He joins alongside Chris Philp, who is returning to a department he left two months ago to spend some quality time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and then a week’s internship at the Cabinet Office.
However, it goes without saying that not every former minister, Johnson backer, or reformed Trussite can get what they want from this reshuffle. So for every Johnny Mercer, returning to his perfect role as Minister of State for Veteran’s Affairs, there is an Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who finds herself bumped back down to serving as a Minister of State at the Foreign Office having previously scaled the hights of International Development, Trade, and Transport.
Yet the biggest losers of this reshuffle are not so much particular individuals, but a class: the 2019ers. Of course, big names like Davison are more difficult to sack than those ministers not so skilled at Instagram. Precious few other members of the latest intake saw much reward. Sunak allies like Laura Trott and Clare Coutinho became Parliamentary Under-Secretary. Fay Jones reached the Whips’ office, but she passed Mark Jenkinson, the actual ‘Workington Man’, on the way out.
The reason for this lack of sponsorship for our youngest class of MPs is plain. Sunak may know that positioning himself as the guardian of the Red Wall is his best route to electoral success. But he knows that to win those voters back, he needs to deliver – and fast. That means experienced ministers with a knowledge of government. This is no time to be blooding in newbies. For most of those Red Wall MPs though, missing out a Red Box is a price worth paying for a better chance of keeping their seats.