Political spotlight: reshuffling the decks
The video posted online of Boris Johnson’s first meeting with his new cabinet offered a fascinating – if not cringeworthy – insight into the goings-on around that large table at No 10.
The grinning face of new Chancellor Rishi Sunak sitting beside Johnson, nodding as enthusiastically as the Churchill dog, represents a visual metaphor of the ‘yes-man’ culture of the UK Government.
When Johnson asks them how many hospitals they are going to build and how many more police officers they are going to recruit, the cabinet members reply in unison, like eager school pupils desperate to impress their teacher.
“How many more nurses are we recruiting? Fifty thousand, exactly,” he congratulates his team who all got the answer right, even though the figure itself is highly debatable.
And then there’s the laughter. Not even fake or nervous laughter, but genuine, enthusiastic laughter every time he cracks one of his questionable jokes or embarks upon one of his notorious rambles.
“Now it’s time really to put the pedal to the metal, if you see what I mean,” he declares. “In a low-carbon way, if you put the pedal to the metal in a non-combustion, internal combustion vehicle, we’ve got to put the pedal to the metal.”
PJ Masks will do a greater job than all of them put together
And if none of that makes any sense – and let’s face it, it doesn’t – then don’t even begin to attempt to decipher the ramblings of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s senior adviser and the man many say is really running the government.
When asked about Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle, Cummings referred to a kids’ TV show, stating: “PJ Masks will do a greater job than all of them put together.”
Cummings either has a lot of faith in the crime-fighting children in pyjamas, or very little faith in the new cabinet, but one thing is clear – Johnson seems to have unwavering faith in him.
Some believe that the resignation of Sajid Javid over his refusal to sack his team of advisers in a move by No 10 to seize control of the Treasury shows just how much influence Cummings has.
Allies of Javid accused the Prime Minister’s team of trying to undermine him in an effort to force the Treasury to ramp up spending on public services and order tax cuts.
And while it is said Johnson had taken a gamble, believing Javid would back down, he didn’t bat an eyelid when he resigned, meaning Cummings got his way regardless.
Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader, has called for Cummings to give evidence before a parliamentary committee after expressing concerns over the “revolving door” of ministers in the UK Government.
It’s been clear for a long period of time that [Dominic Cummings] is the power behind the throne
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, Blackford said: “I’ve written to the clerk of the Liaison Committee to ask that he use his powers to make sure that Dominic Cummings appears before that committee.
“It’s been clear for a long period of time that this is the power behind the throne.”
He added: “It’s right that the Prime Minister is questioned by the committee, but also the person that’s responsible – the power behind the throne – Dominic Cummings, who is having such an impact on government which has seen not just the removal of ministers but special advisers losing their job as he continues to play games in Number 10.”
Other casualties of the cabinet reshuffle include Julian Smith, who was sacked as Northern Ireland secretary just weeks after he brokered a return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland following three years without a devolved government.
Business secretary Andrea Leadsom, Theresa Villiers, the environment secretary, and Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, have also been replaced.
The baton of Chancellor of the Exchequer was handed to Sunak, who had been Chief Secretary to the Treasury since last July before taking the top job.
In announcing his resignation, Javid said that “no self-respecting minister” would accept the terms laid down by No 10, which is not exactly a glowing endorsement for his successor.
But Sunak himself was a successful businessman, co-founding a large investment firm, so may not be as much of a pushover as his acceptance of these conditions would suggest.
And with Johnson unlikely to want to lose a second chancellor, Sunak has the opportunity to be far more than just a grinning yes-man after all.
Despite the controversy surrounding Javid’s resignation, perhaps it’s the new environment secretary who has got off to the bumpiest start as he has, quite literally, been thrown in at the deep end.
With floods destroying communities and livelihoods across the country, all eyes were on the government, and particularly George Eustice, to do something to help. And, better still, to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Eustice – who previously held ministerial posts under David Cameron and Theresa May – responded by blaming climate change and helpfully stated: “We have to live with that fact.”
And, even more helpfully, he added he would “never be able to protect every single household” from extreme weather – a great source of reassurance for those desperate souls watching their lives float away in a river of dirty floodwater.
With the new appointments, the proportion of women in the UK cabinet has increased to just over a quarter, though the actual number has fallen from eight to seven because some positions became obsolete
Other appointments which have made less of a splash include Berwick-upon-Tweed MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who replaced Alok Sharma as International Development Secretary and former deputy chief whip Amanda Milling, who has replaced James Cleverly as Conservative Party chairman. Suella Braverman has also been appointed to replace Geoffrey Cox as Attorney General.
With the new appointments, the proportion of women in the UK cabinet has increased to just over a quarter, though the actual number has fallen from eight to seven because some positions became obsolete.
In contrast, the Scottish cabinet is now predominately female after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced her reshuffle in the wake of the Derek Mackay scandal.
Kate Forbes was given the Finance Secretary role, which was no great surprise to those who praised her impressive performance when stepping in to deliver Mackay’s budget at the 11th hour.
Forbes, who has quickly risen through the ranks since being elected in 2016, previously held the public finance minister brief and is the first woman in the Finance Secretary role.
Mackay’s other role, on the economy, was given to Fiona Hyslop, with the External Affairs Secretary now taking on the new role of Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture.
Mike Russell adds the external affairs brief to his portfolio, becoming Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs.
Fergus Ewing adds tourism to his job as Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism, while backbencher Jenny Gilruth has been promoted to Minister for Europe and International Development, supporting Russell.
And Ben Macpherson, the former Europe, Migration and International Development Minister, will move to join the finance team as Minister for Public Finance and Migration.
Sturgeon said that the appointments bring “new talent” into the government and will deliver a “real focus” on driving forward the Scottish economy and on addressing the challenges of Brexit, increasing the population and ending Scotland’s contribution to the climate crisis.
She said: “Fiona Hyslop has been an outstanding cabinet secretary, delivering a successful expansion of Scotland’s overseas presence and recognition, supporting our booming tourism industry and demonstrating the huge importance of culture – not just to our economy, but more importantly, to who we are and how we see ourselves.
“I know she will bring that drive, passion and sharp focus to Scotland’s economy. Working alongside Kate Forbes as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, she will continue to drive forward our economy, support our key industries and maintain Scotland’s long tradition as an outward-looking, dynamic and enterprising nation.”
Sturgeon added: “Ben Macpherson will continue to make the case for Scotland to have a distinct migration system in order to meet our economic, social and financial needs – and as Public Finance Minister will also take the lead on identifying ways to fund climate action, and he will work across government to build a wellbeing economy.
“Jenny Gilruth will join government for the first time – having proven herself as a talented and hard-working MSP – and takes on the role of Minister for Europe and International Development. She will have the important task of promoting Scotland, building new links in a post-Brexit environment and delivering on our global responsibilities – and I know she is more than up to that challenge.”
With the key players now all in place, only time will tell whether it is Johnson or Sturgeon who has dealt themselves the better hand.