Three holders of a great office of state – the Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, and Home Secretary – have a close working relationship with the fourth: the Prime Minister. At least if what I was once told is anything to go by.
A former holder of one of them under Boris Johnson, who had previously been a Cabinet member of lower rank, said that their promotion made a big difference. Previously, there was a sense of Downing Street simply issuing marching orders: a Cabinet Minister outside the Big Three might sometimes dig his heels in, but the Prime Minister was usually able to throw his weight about.
With a Chancellor, say, this is less so. A Prime Minister has to mind his Ps and Qs a bit – otherwise, before you know it, you end up in the same territory as Thatcher/Lawson, if not Blair/Brown.
This is all by way of explaining how Rishi Sunak was able to resist having Jacob Rees-Mogg replace Steve Barclay as Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the last reshuffle.
I doubt that the Chancellor was ever put in the confrontational position of refusing the suggestion outright. But I’m told that Sunak was, at the least, sounded out about the move. And that – not to put too fine a point on the matter – he rejected it. This is interesting, for two reasons.
First, Rees-Mogg is very much the Prime Minister’s man. He supported Boris Johnson’s leadership bid and was an ally of his during the May premiership. His appointment would have meant a key ally of Number Ten moving in to the Treasury.
The Chancellor will presumably have been told that having Rees-Mogg as his number two would make it easier to sell the Government’s economic policy to a restive Conservative base, given the latter’s popularity with the activist base. (The Leader of the House came in fourth in this site’s last Cabinet League Table.)
Which takes us to the second reason for a Rees-Mogg move to the Treasury. Why is there grassroots anxiety about Government economic policy? Because, crudely speaking, some members see it as too left-wing. They think spending and taxes are too high.
And – to use simplistic terms again – Johnson is happy for the Government to carry on in that way and Sunak isn’t, at least if a passage in his Budget speech last month was anything to go by.
“Do we want to live in a country where the response to every question is “What are the Government going to do about it?”, the Chancellor asked the Commons. “where every time prices rise, every time a company gets in trouble, every time some new challenge emerges, the answer is always that the taxpayer must pay? Or do we choose to recognise that Government has limits?
In sum, Sunak is a monetarist (plumping for Friedman over Keynes when asked recently to choose between the two), while Johnson is, if not exactly a Keynesian, then a Boosterist, to adapt his own word.
Rees-Mogg is scarcely a Keynesian, in the vulgar sense of the term, but he is suspicious of the Treasury orthodoxy on tax. The Treasury is powering the push for tax rises. The Leader of the House is part of the resistance – look no further than his Moggcast last year when he warned that coming out of “an extraordinarily deep slump” is “not the time when you want to slap the economy down with higher taxes”.
At any rate, moving him to the Treasury was floated with the Chancellor, at the very least, and rebuffed. Though Johnson got his man into Number Ten in the end. Just a different one.
Clock the code that Simon Clarke, a forerunner in 2017 of the Red Wall wins of 2019, used in the aftermath of the Budget. “The Chancellor was very open about the fact that this is something of a philosophical shift…What we want to see is to get the economy turbocharged, unlock productivity, and to deliver growth more evenly across UK. That does require some upfront spending.”
All that said, one version of events is that, whatever Johnson may have wanted, Mark Spencer was keen for Rees-Mogg to stay in his present post.