What we know:
- Earlier this year, it was briefed that a sweeping departmental reorganisation was on the table. The International Development Department would be absorbed into the Foreign Office. The Business and Trade departments would be merged. Migration and security could be split: it followed that prisons might be bundled up with the latter in the Home Office, a new stand-alone department would deal with immigration, and the Justice Department would be wound up, with its legal responsibilities folding into a revived Lord Chancellor’s Department.
- It was then re-briefed that large-scale re-organisation was off the table, and that Boris Johnson is inclined to soldier on much as now.
- The “big four” are said to be safe: Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid.
- However, there is a question mark over Javid’s future. Relations between some of his Special Advisers and some in Number Ten are poisonous. The Chancellor has already seen one of his SpAds fired (Sonia Khan). The Prime Minister may push to dismiss at least two more – Mats Person and Sam Coates. Which Javid would resist. This one may not end well.
- Rishi Sunak could be kept on at the Treasury as Chief Secretary to man-mark the Chancellor on Downing Street’s behalf.
- Gove may acquire responsibility for the United Nations Climate Change Glasgow summit in November amidst other expanded responsibilites.
- The following women members of the Cabinet may be dismissed, in rough order of probability: Theresa Villiers, Andrea Leadsom (whose article on gender equality this weekend may not have helped her cause), Therese Coffey, Liz Truss. Esther McVey who is entitled to attend meetings as Housing Minister, could also be moved.
- Nicky Morgan will stand down of her own accord.
- Oliver Dowden may replace her as Culture Secretary.
- A post will be found for Steve Barclay following the abolition of his job as Brexit Secretary.
- Penny Mordaunt may or may not return, depending on who and what you read.
- The following women Ministers could be promoted: Kemi Badenoch, Nus Ghani, Chloe Smith, Helen Whateley and possibly Victoria Atkins (if she has been forgiven for offering Johnson help with his “language around women”.)
- Ben Wallace and Jacob Rees-Mogg may be dismissed but probably won’t be.
- Julian Smith at Northern Ireland is presumed to be safe despite his history of insidery clashes with the Johnson line over Brexit.
- Geoffrey Cox could be replaced as Attorney-General by Lucy Frazer.
- Last year, it was mooted that the Prime Minister would radically reduce the size of Cabinet, cutting its membership back to about 20 places, with an end to the practice of some other senior Ministers “also attending”.
- It was then re-mooted that the former change at least won’t happen, because the Prime Minister would therefore offend the Ministers who lose out.
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What should happen:
- The Cabinet is too big to be a decision-making body. In any event, the real business is controlled by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretary, even under a weak Government – as McVey found out.
- None the less, it would recover authority were those attending to be restricted to: the Commons Leader, the Chief Whip, the Chief Secretary and the Attorney-General.
- A large-scale reorganisation would be an exercise in reprinting the stationery – and is best avoided. Only very big change in government can justify it. So for example, it may be that the Prime Minister decides to scrap the Supreme Court, revive the Law Lords, recreate the old Lord Chancellor’s Department – and make a senior figure from the legal world, such as Edward Faulks, Lord Chancellor. But he will presumably want the proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission to report first.
- If it isn’t going to happen yet, there’s a very strong case for leaving most of the Cabinet well alone: after all, it’s been in place for less than a year. And it’s not as though there’s a mass of more obviously capable Ministers knocking at the door. From those “entitled to attend”, one might single out for promotion Sunak, Dowden and Number Ten’s choice for media fire-fighting: Brandon Lewis.
- This principle should apply in spades to the Cabinet’s women members. We are sitting through the same old story. Women are sent out to the crease. They don’t immediately start hitting boundaries. There is a panic. They are fired or demoted. More women are sent in to replace them. They don’t immediately start scoring runs either. So the destructive cycle begins all over again.
- The best course Johnson could take would be to leave the present women Cabinet members in place, rather than allow the same fate to be meted out to Badenoch, Ghani, Smith, Whateley and Atkins and, perhaps, the only other female Minister of State beside Frazer and the recently-promoted Anne-Marie Trevelyan – Caroline Dinenage.
- Gove’s real business should be to become the new Brexit Secretary, in effect, since a department must lead this year’s negotiation. He should also continue to have a roving brief over Government policy, including making the case for the Union – a key brief as next year’s Scottish elections loom into view. Gove is in effect Deputy Prime Minister and should have the title – or if Johnson insists on witholding it, become First Secretary of State.
- ConservativeHome would have a very limited shuffle as follows. Move Leadsom to be Leader of the House, in which post she excelled under May – leading the fightback against John Bercow’s bias. Move Sunak into the Business Department. Replace him at the Treasury with Rees-Mogg. And promote Dowden into the Culture vacancy, thus reuniting at the top table the three horsemen of the apocalypse.
- Then get on with governing. What Downing Street wants is Ministers who run their departments competently, don’t obssess with media appearances – and don’t brief against the Prime Minister. So be it. If the Coronavirus takes off, reshuffles will be the least of our worries.