David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
It is sometimes said of a reshuffle that it lacks coherence; that there is no pattern to the various Ministerial appointments; that, to quote Churchill, ‘there is no theme to this pudding’. Such a charge cannot be laid against this week’s announcements.
There is a theme – and it is a familiar one. “Take back control”. Or, perhaps it would be better put as “take back even more control”.
Three departures illustrate the nature of the reshuffle – Sajid Javid, Julian Smith and Geoffrey Cox. I worked closely with all three at various stages of our careers and had my differences with each of them on occasions, but I like and respect all three.
Much of the news coverage has rightly focused on the resignation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In truth, he was constructively dismissed. As Sajid rightly said, no ‘self-respecting minister’ would accept the conditions that the Prime Minister attempted to impose upon him to dismiss his Special Advisers.
Given the briefing from sources within Number 10 about him being a Chancellor In Name Only (‘CHINO’), this was surely a humiliation too far. Sajid was bound to walk, even if some in Number 10 thought otherwise. A good man pushed too far.
His resignation did, at least, distract attention from the criticism of the dismissal of Julian Smith. Julian had, in a few short months, impressed all sides in his understanding of the complexities of Northern Ireland, established trusting relationships with all the key players and demonstrated an inexhaustible capacity for hard work. Following the British general election, he recognised that both the DUP and Sinn Fein were under pressure to compromise. He seized that opportunity with courage and imagination and forced through a deal that restored the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It was briefed in advance of the reshuffle that he faced dismissal because he had blindsided Number 10 as to the provisions of the agreement in respect of investigations into British soldiers. However, the evidence suggests that Number 10 was kept fully in the loop.
It is possible that the Government has been taken aback by backbench objections to this aspect of the deal, but that does not justify hanging the Secretary of State out to dry. And if that is the reason, what now for the deal that restored Stormont? Jeopardizing the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland would be reckless in the extreme.
The more likely explanation is that Julian had been too outspoken last year about the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. He described it as being ‘very, very bad’ for Northern Ireland. Although this was a statement of the bleeding obvious, this went further than any other Cabinet minister had done. Perhaps taking his responsibilities seriously and wanting to avoid something very bad happening to Northern Ireland contributed to his subsequent triumph in restoring Stormont.
Anyway, he had to go. At least his replacement – Brandon Lewis – deserves promotion.
The third significant departure is Geoffrey Cox. Geoffrey emerged as a political star in 2018 when he became a high profile Attorney-General and the Prime Minister’s warm-up act. We worked closely on justice matters, although I always felt somewhat like a junior solicitor instructing senior counsel. However, he was a generous and considerate colleague whose contributions at the Cabinet table were eloquent and influential.
A criticism that was made of Geoffrey was that he was a lawyer first and politician second. I suspect he would plead guilty to the charge. He would always refuse to put at risk his legal reputation in the interests of political expediency.
There are plenty who believe that, had he shown more flexibility in his legal advice, the second meaningful vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal may have succeeded. Geoffrey was aware of what was at stake, but the greatest imperative was to state accurately the law as he saw it. Maybe that doesn’t make him a team player – but the Attorney-General should not be just another member of the team.
The credibility that comes with Geoffrey’s experience has helped calm concerns about the Government’s intentions as to the independence of the judiciary. There is a legitimate debate about how the law has extended into areas that best belong to Parliament and the Executive.
However, there is a concern that the Government is seeking vengeance on a troublesome judiciary. I have tended to think those concerns were overblown, that nothing too foolish would happen because neither the Attorney-General nor the Lord Chancellor would put up with any nonsense. A lot rests on Robert Buckland’s shoulders now.
This brings me back to the theme of this reshuffle – indeed the theme of this Government. Imagine, for a moment, that you are Prime Minister (or, perhaps, more to the point, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser). You worry that you are not as powerful as you would like. There are lots you want to do, but there are all these impediments. You managed to deal with a few already (Parliament? Not a problem with an 80 seat majority; EU rules? Done; The media? Just ignore them). What is left?
First, you don’t have much of a machine in Number 10. The answer? Commandeer the Treasury. This deals with the second problem – the most powerful government department, which has a tendency to stand in the way of Prime Ministers doing what they want on the tiresome grounds of affordability and value-for-money.
Third, Cabinet might kick-off – so get rid of the potential troublemakers even if (or should that be, ‘especially if’) they have a reputation for being good Ministers.
Fourth, the courts. Not quite sure how to do that yet, but make sure that the judiciary doesn’t have any cheerleaders round the Cabinet table.
At one level, I cannot help admiring the ambition and execution. Politics is about acquiring and using power and, when it comes to acquiring power, the Johnson/Cummings axis is formidable. Most successful politicians seek to increase their power; it is not a shameful objective. Control is well and truly being taken back (although I am sceptical that the Treasury really will be neutered).
But is a system of government whereby all power is concentrated in Number 10 likely to result in that power being well used? Bothersome though the reasons why some apparently bright idea cannot be pursued might be (“we can’t afford it”, “the law doesn’t allow it”, “we won’t get it past Parliament”, “the Cabinet won’t put up with it”), the process of government should test robustly any proposal. After this reshuffle, these processes are likely to be less robust.
In a world where policy decisions may have complex and far-reaching consequences, dismantling the checks and balances that exist within our governmental system runs the risk of bad policy being pursued. And with power being concentrated, so will responsibility. Number 10 will have no one else to blame.