The end of transition was a calendar fixture and ought, in the event of a trade agreement, to have offered Boris Johnson the chance to refresh the Government – since a deal would both boost his standing with Conservative MPs and bring calmer political waters.
But then an event took place last winter that was very much not a calendar fixture: the first major pandemic in a century. It would consequently have looked and been frivolous to have a major reshuffle now, and so lash those waters up again at a moment when the Prime Minister needs all Ministerial hands on deck.
The same logic applies to the next natural break in the political calendar: the February half-term recess. Hospitalisations will have risen and may not be falling by then.
Then there is Easter in early April. But Covid considerations apart, local elections are due in May. Why hold a big reshuffle before then rather than after?
And if they are postponed until June, why not wait until September for a shuffle, before the Conservative Party Conference (for there will be one in some form), rather than send MPs off for the summer recess in the wake of a self-made squall – since reshuffles inevitably bring more pain than gain?
The shape of events since the outbreak of a new strain of Covid has thus suggested putting off the shuffle until early autumn. Furthermore, no Cabinet Minister will then reasonably be able to complain if sacked or moved, having been in place for the best part of 18 months. However, there was a snag.
Namely, what to do about COP26, due to take place in Glasgow this November? To cut a long story short, it will need an agreement to be a political success for the Prime Minister, and is set to be his second major diplomatic setpiece of the year – the first being the UK’s G7 presidency and the consequent summit, usually held during the summer.
That requires a lot of legwork. And the Minister in charge of the COP26 negotiation, Alok Sharma, wore two hats – his other being that of Business Secretary.
So the Prime Minister has gone for a short sharp solution – announced on a Friday evening, a legendary graveyard news slot, in which Governments make announcements that they wish to gain limited publicity.
No big shuffle. No return to the Cabinet yet for Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was removed when her DfID job was abolished recently, but reportedly promised a return. She is back in the department as Energy Minister, which will surely be a disappointment. And there is no comeback for Sajid Javid, whose name was in the frame for the BEIS job. Instead, Johnson has opted for a minimalist, orderly solution.
Sharma stays in Cabinet, and goes full-time for the COP26 role. And Kwasi Kwarteng, already a Minister of State in the Business department, moves one slot up to replace him as Secretary of State. By our count, the Cabinet was one under its maximum count of 22, so Sharma stays a full member.
Kwarteng is a big, personable, right-wing historian, who once wrote a lively column for the Prime Minister’s alma mater – the Daily Telegraph. He was a co-author of the Free Enterprise Group’s bracing study Britannia Unchained.
So he is bound to see the trade deal as a further loosening of the bonds. The Government’s friends will say that he ups the Cabinet’s number of ethnic minority members to five. Its enemies will reply that it raises the number of Old Etonians to two.
Sharma is not at all a front-of-house Cabinet showman, being inclined to block the bowling and risk nothing outside off stump, but he is a diligent, toiling Minister. More to the point, he is a loyalist: a Johnson voter in the 2019 leadership election, playing Jeremy Hunt during campaign practice debates. Kwarteng is another loyalist – though he broke ranks to lay into “misfit and weirdo” Andrew Sabinsky.
The term was Dominic Cummings’, not Kwarteng’s: readers will remember the former Chief Adviser seeking to recruit some to the civil service. Kwarteng departed from the Government line to accuse Sabinsky of racism. But Cummings has left the building…
We take this mini-shuffle as a sign that a bigger one is now unlikely to come until the autumn. This is not a strong Cabinet, but the Prime Minister is sticking with it, at least for the moment.
Dependability, a lack of fuss, predictability – and taking the drama out of event. These are not qualities most people associate with Johnson but, when it comes to Government shuffles, they are becoming trademarks: oh, plus loyalty, of course. Though the treatment of Trevelyan hangs over these moves like a questionmark.