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The reshuffle has long been the accepted method by which Prime Ministers keep hacks excited and MPs loyal. Speculating over who is up or down fills column inches and fires backbench gossip. The obligatory shot of ministers processing up and down Downing Street is one of the constants of our political life. Notable ones – like 1962’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’ or Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration of the Wets – have long established themselves as the cliched touchstones of the under-informed commentator (laughs nervously).
Hence why Rishi Sunak’s undramatic approach yesterday came as a surprise to many – on Twitter, at least. Introducing the new Cabinet ministers via an 11 AM e-mail rather than the TV gauntlet completely denuded the occasion of drama. The Prime Minister compounded this sin by indulging in the time-consuming act of establishing new departments – for Energy Security and Net Zero, Business and Trade, and Culture, Media, and Sport – when received wisdom suggests his days are numbered. Cue comments about deckchairs, and the Titanic.
All of this is rather unfair. The aghast reaction of some in the political entertainment industry to Sunak’s low-key reshuffle shows many have still not gotten used to a Prime Minister more interested in quietly delivering than feeding the SW1 soap opera. Yesterday’s reorganisation was a clear attempt to get Whitehall to focus on his priorities. The question is not whether it should have been done at all, but whether it went far enough.
Those suggesting Sunak is wasting time he does not have can point to the analysis of the Institute for Government. They have suggested merging two departments or setting up a new one can cost around £15 million, with a drop of productivity of around a fifth for up to a year. If Sunak wants to spend the next year delivering 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 response to the shock triggered by the Arab-Israeli War of late 1973. This time around, the energy challenge has been apparent for a year. Shapps was already apparently spending 90 per cent of his time on energy issues as Business Secretary.
Sunak highlighted his desire to create a Department for Energy Supply in the summer. Weaning ourselves off of foreign fossil fuels and increasing domestic energy production is a priority, whether you’re a Net Zero zealot or not (don’t worry guys – it’s dead as a dodo). Sunak is right to give it the minister the focus it requires.
Similarly, the Department for International Trade was a ministry beginning to outlive its usefulness. It was created by Theresa May partly to buy off Liam Fox, and partly to build the infrastructure required for signing trade agreements after 45-odd years behind the Common External Tariff. Boris Johnson retained it for that reason, but also gave it the task of keeping Liz Truss out of the country – a role later switched to the Foreign Office.
Brexit has now happened. We have also signed trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand; a deal with India, and membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is in the offing. As Ben Ramanausakas, a former Truss adviser, points out, most modern trade agreements require highly technical and specific discussions of issues around domestic regulation.
Combining Trade with Business makes sense, especially as it provides with Department with greater heft when it comes to the inevitable turf wars with the Home Office, DEFRA, and the Treasury. Similarly, stripping the Culture, Media, and Sport of the Digital element returns the ministry to being the ‘Department of Fun’ bequeathed by John Major. It also allows Sunak to create a ministry focused on science and innovation, two things which he has long maintained will do more for upping our long-term growth rate than footling around with tax cuts.
Sunak’s choices are therefore eminently reasonable – raising the question of why he didn’t go further. Our Deputy Editor has long argued for breaking up a Home Office that struggles with handling security, policing, and immigration. Stian Westlake and Dominic Cummings – boo, hiss – are two of those who have suggested that Sunak should do what Tony Blair never could, and cut the Treasury’s Gordian knot.
But he can only spin so many plates. With Presidents to meet, backlogs to shift, and half a series of Love Island to catch up on, there comes a point at which Whitehall desk-shuffling becomes all-consuming, rather than a tough but necessary choice in the interests of delivery.