Sajid Javid was right to resign. Some will say that his was a noble, principled, act of self-sacrifice – and that if other Ministers showed even a drop of the same integrity and loyalty, Westminster would be a better place.
Others will counter that he had no choice – that, having lost one SpAd, Sonia Khan, to Dominic Cummings, he could scarcely afford to lose all the rest. And then walk through politics with a sandwich board round his neck proclaiming “Chancellor In Name Only” – like the fabled man who wanders central London with one declaring that the End is Nigh. These takes are not mutually exclusive, and both are correct.
We will return later to Javid’s future, pausing only to add that his departure is a loss to the Government, and that we very much hope he will return. So it seems does the Prime Minister. For one point is clear to us from this defining incident of the reshuffle. Boris Johnson wanted his Chancellor to stay, pleading with him not to quit. Dominic Cummings wanted him out. Which brings us to the rest of the changes.
The sacking of Julian Smith; the promotion of Alok Sharma, Oliver Dowden, Brandon Lewis, George Eustice and Ann-Marie Trevelyan; the dismissal of Andrea Leadsom, Theresa Villiers and Geoffrey Cox; Michael Gove’s modest but significant increase in responsibilities; the modified return outside Cabinet of Penny Mordaunt and James Brokenshire; the sending-to-CCHQ of Amanda Milling: all these have a theme in common.
It is that Johnson, not Cummings, is ultimately in control, insofar as anyone can be – for, as we have seen, Javid would still be in Number 11 if the Prime Minister had had his way. Johnson has never been powered by the Christian ethic and – though he will often shrug off grudges, slights and grievances, with the curious breadth and humour that marks him – forgiveness is nowhere near the centre of his moral code.
Rather, he is looking from his Ministers for a combination of loyalty and grip. Some of those who have gone, like Smith, were seen to have the latter, but not the former. Others, the other way round. Leadsom was a rival leadership candidate. Villiers was slow to come out for his Brexit deal. Look further down Government’s food chain, and you will find the same. Nus Ghani, tipped for promotion but fired yesterday, backed Jeremy Hunt last year.
For what it’s worth, we think the Prime Minister’s judgement on those he fired is wide of the mark. For example, we would have moved Andrea Leadsom to be Leader of the House. She excelled in the post under Theresa May’s haunted premiership, and few recognise Theresa Villiers’ successes. If Smith is to be praised for his role in bringing Northern Ireland a settlement, what about Villiers’ own earlier role in achieving the same in 2014?
There is a double standard here among the Green Jersey Cognoscenti, doubtless because Villiers was originally for Brexit while Smith was not. But ConHome doesn’t rule the world, which is doubtless just as well. Nor, despite claims to the contrary this morning, does Cummings. None the less, Johnson is inclined to let him have his way, at least most of the time, on personnel, if not on policy.
If Johnson is the monarch, Cummings has vice-regal powers. He jested this week that the cast of PJ Masks would provide a better Cabinet than its then members. (On second thoughts, maybe he wasn’t joking.) At any rate, he now has what he wants – Ministers that he and his circle rate as operators. Pow! Here comes Catboy Rishi Sunak. Wham! There goes Owlette Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Look over there! It’s P.J.Robot Oliver Dowden.
The most interesting senior appointment of all, to our mind, is that of Gekko Alok Sharma. To him falls the fearsome responsibility of helping to deliver the the techonology, procurement and business revolution that Cummings yearns for. As for the new Chancellor, this rising politician, who performed so durably during December’s election, is now the tallest of tall poppies. We trust that he grows, and isn’t scythed down.
To travel further down the appointments is to see Number Ten’s oversight wane and the Whips’ grip wax. This is a very good shuffle for them as an institution. Amanda Milling was Deputy Chief Whip as well as a former member of Johnson’s exiled court. Chris Pincher, Andrew Stephenson, Stuart Andrew, Jeremy Quin: up the ranks these whips or former whips go.
Meanwhile, the restoration of Mordaunt, Brokenshire and Greg Hands sends an institutional signal. Keep your nose clean and you can return, though not at the level at which you left. Among the promoted women, Chloe Smith, Michelle Donelan and Helen Whately are now Ministers of State, and contenders for Cabinet next time round. (By the way, Number Ten’s targets for more female Ministers are less ambitious than they look.)
So then: neither Johnson nor Cummings has taken back control in this shuffle – because neither of them ever lost it. It confirms what December’s election, the Prime Minister’s nose-thumbing at Brexit extension, his contempt for that notorious Supreme Court judgement, and Cummings’ own original appointment should have taught us by now. Johnson and his top team are on a mission. For them, this time and always, it is truly Do Or Die.
Talking of forgiveness, or the lack of it, watch Suella Braverman. On this site only recently, she tore into the judges: “As we start this new chapter of our democratic story, our Parliament must retrieve power ceded to another place – the courts,” she wrote. Braverman has undoubtedly been put in place to help restore the constitution’s balance. Policy Exchange’s Judicial Power Project is about to take flesh.
Today, cunning old Johnson – “the greased albino piglet”, as David Cameron calls him – will be out of the line of fire, and P.J.Masks’ very own Splat Monster Cummings will be bang in it. He will take the blame or the credit for yesterday’s changes. We cheer the aim as we ponder the future. To be sure, the Prime Minister has a whacking majority, and Cummings’ judgement is surely right: for the moment, MPs and the media have no leverage.
But tomorrow is another, darker day. Sunak must scramble to put a Budget together in less than a month. Current spending is tight, and he new Chancellor will be looking for some tax rises. Huawei is not a settled issue as far as the Commons is concerned – nor veterans, say, if one turns specifically to Conservative MPs. A big defence spending row looms.
Nor is the policy shape of this Government clear: what return will consumers, rather than producers, get out of all that spending on schools and hospitals? What happened to reform? Cummings’ answer may be: “PJ Masks, we’re on our way. Into the night, to save the day!” But life is not a cartoon strip. It is lived in three dimensions. Government needs more compromise, art, tact and accomodation than referendums and elections allow.