Is Boris weaponising reshuffle rumours?

7 September 2021

5:10 AM

7 September 2021

5:10 AM

Parliament is back today and the Prime Minister is facing an autumn filled with problems. Boris Johnson had hoped to use the last week before the summer recess to reset his premiership by announcing reforms to social care, more money for the NHS and potentially reshuffling his top team. Instead, he found himself in self-isolation after coming into contact with Sajid Javid, who had tested positive for Covid. Now there are plans afoot to use the first week back to return to unfinished business.

Once again there are rumours of a reshuffle — while Johnson is expected to finally unveil his social care plans on Tuesday. They too are not without problems. Johnson’s plan to hike National Insurance in order to provide funding for the NHS backlog and social care has been met with opposition from his cabinet and MPs alike. Several Tory MPs — and Tory grandees — have gone public with their criticism complaining that it will exacerbate intergenerational unfairness and serve to help those who are asset rich, thereby going against the 2019 election ‘levelling up’ pledge to win over voters in the red wall. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has said that Labour will oppose the measures as reported.

While numerous cabinet ministers have criticised the plans, they have done so anonymously. This is where rumours of a reshuffle (supposedly scheduled for Thursday) come in. With the threat of demotion looming, which ministers will have the courage to take a stand on a policy they claim to be against? The fact they could be sacked or demoted this week is meant to help quell any rebellion. It’s also why some in Westminster believe the reshuffle rumours are just that — rumours aimed at inspiring good behaviour across government.

However, given Johnson flirted with reshuffling his team on the last Thursday of the summer term, it could also be read as the Prime Minister simply returning to his plans for the week that never was. As I previously reported in the magazine, the constant reshuffle rumours have started to have a negative impact on Johnson’s government. It means ministers are more likely to join in pile-ons involving colleagues (the more people who are vulnerable the less chance there is of being demoted) and find it harder to drive reform in their department.

As one cabinet minister puts it: ‘These reshuffle rumours are having a debilitating effect on the government… He should just do it or kill the speculation. It’s hard to plan ahead if you have no idea whether you’ll be in your job by Christmas.’ Should Johnson proceed, those viewed as being at risk include Dominic Raab, Amanda Milling and Gavin Williamson.

A reshuffle would undoubtedly cause Johnson problems with party management — those who are let go or who miss out on promotion could feel little reason to be loyal on crunch issues like planning and social care. While Johnson may be able to get his social care plans through his cabinet, there’s reason to suggest the parliamentary party will be a harder sell.

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