The Sun is not a paper known to beating around the bush. Nonetheless, their headline yesterday – ‘Johnson axes slew of white men in sweeping reshuffle – to promote rising-star women’ – might have been a bit on point for the Prime Minister’s liking.
Not because it isn’t true, of course. We noted the pattern in our own live blog, especially when Greg Hands managed to avoid the fate of John Whittingdale and Nick Gibb. Nor because its a bad thing to be promoting women in to government. Quite the reverse.
Nonetheless, the basic arithmetic of the parliamentary Conservative Party means that any Tory leader needs to keep the white men, or at least enough of them, happy. And even in these days of a hugely expanded payroll vote, prime ministerial patronage has its limits.
Our Editor noted this problem back in March, when we reported on the frustrations of MPs from the 2019 intake who felt they were being passed over for promotion. With every reshuffle that passes, those concerns will grow more acute. And they will be all the worse for ambitious MPs from earlier intakes whose careers are not progressing as they might have hoped or expected.
Johnson’s problem is perhaps greater because of the nature of his victory in 2019. Whilst women comprised almost a third of that intake, which we examined in ‘Boris’ Boys and Girls’, ethnic minority candidates were much less well-represented than they had been in prior cohorts.
Given what we know from our studies of the 2015 and 2017 intakes, this wasn’t actually surprising. The Conservatives tend to be good at selecting minority candidates for safe seats, with the vast majority of new seats won by candidates who are local and, usually, white. The 2019 intake is simply the product of that pattern holding whilst the electoral map underneath it changed quite dramatically.
But none of this changes the fact that there are a lot of white, male Tory MPs who will not have been pleased by yesterday’s headlines, nor that there is thus an apparent tension between trying to diversify the government on traditional metrics and bringing in more people from the Red Wall.
This isn’t the only way in which the reshuffle might come back to bite Johnson. Sacking the Roberts Buckland and Jenrick sends an unhelpful signal about the rewards that await ministers who try loyally to implement controversial reforms. But if the Prime Minister can’t keep his MPs on side, it may be that he loses the capacity for such bold legislation in any event.