Potential Cabinet Reshuffle; September 2020 | Daniel King

These are dire times that the Conservative Government finds itself in. Following another week of U-turns over free school meals and the contact tracing app, Tory misery over missed targets and ill-advised PR messages has been utterly compounded. There has been increased speculation of a drastic Autumn cabinet reshuffle as backbench unrest quells and opinion polling lags.

As the public increasingly look to demand a scapegoat for failures on a number of issues, it looks likely that Johnson and Cummings will have to prepare some heads for the chop. Former MP Paul Goodman said that “no one seriously thinks that this cabinet is the Conservative first eleven”, and there have been rumours linking big names such as Jeremy Hunt and Liam Fox for a return to the top table.

But will there be big beast or small fry on the menu?

Photo by Number 10 on Flickr.

Matt Hancock: Matt Hancock seems the appropriate place to start in a conversation about ministerial job security. Although, asking if a health secretary – a role already viewed as a poisoned chalice – has had a good global pandemic, is probably similar to asking if a grieving spouse has had a good funeral.

The Covid death toll is now past 40,000, and well over twice the figure which Patrick Vallance said in March would be a ‘good outcome’. Along the way there have been serious PPE shortages to contend with, arbitrary testing figures and dates consistently not met, and the chaos of the track and trace system. In some instances, he can count himself unlucky, but on many occasions, he has made a very public rod for his own back.

The saving grace for the Health Secretary is that the pandemic has elevated him to such central status that, just like Wall Street, he is too big to fail. He has been front and centre of the government’s fight against COVID. To fire Hancock would almost be electoral suicide for the Tories, as it would ultimately be an admission that they have failed in their response to Covid-19. For this reason, he should be safe.

Rishi Sunak: The Chancellor of the Exchequer is the man responsible for the much-coveted Furlough scheme. If you’re making decisions on ministers’ jobs, touch this man’s position at your peril. There is an 80 per cent chance he will be safe, but the extra 20 per cent is topped up by his employer.

Dominic Raab: The responsibilities of the foreign office have been dwarfed in comparison to the stresses placed on the health and education. Consequently, Raab has been flying comparatively under the radar ever since his brief stand in stint as commander in chief, where he gave a good account of himself. Looks assured during the daily briefings that he’s handled. Safe to say he’s going nowhere.

Photo by Number 10 on Flickr.

Priti Patel: TheHome Secretary has also not enjoyed the best pandemic, and she came in for large criticism over her response to the Black Lives Matter protests. However, similar to Raab, her department has not been subject to quite the same level of scrutiny as health or education. She was a controversial figure before she was given the role, following her unsanctioned trip to Israel whilst she was international development secretary. By relieving her of her duty, it sends the wrong message and would prove Johnson’s critics were right to initially question this appointment. As a result, she should be safe.

Gavin Williamson: After enjoying a relatively quiet start to life in lockdown, Williamson has established himself as one of the firm favourites to be forced to step down come September. Justice minister Kit Malthouse is rumoured to be his replacement.

Photo by Number 10 on Flickr.

There has been a catalogue of errors. These began with relatively small misdemeanours – gateway cock-ups, if you will. He has failed to deliver on his pledge to equip all children with laptops to study from home, and experienced some early teething problems with the free school meals scheme. Neither of which were terminal failures.

However, in May he committed a cardinal sin which runs completely anathema to Conservative doctrine – he backed down in a battle with trade unions. He might as well have abolished private schools and renationalised the railways.

Williamson had planned for all primary schools to reopen on June 1st with a view to getting all pupils back before the summer holidays. He received relatively minor opposition from trade unions, whilst enjoying significant support from the press, however he completely caved to the pressure.

This decision has aged like vinegar. Most children will now return to school in September having missed 6 months of education. A development which has made him as unpopular with his electorate as it has with his party. Johnson is said to be furious.

Moreover, what really put the final nail in his bryllcreamed coffin was the ‘COVID summer school fund’, where his judgement of the public mood was so fundamentally flawed, it led to a humiliating diplomatic defeat by footballer Marcus Rashford. Williamson had refused to extend the free school meal vouchers which had been given out during term time and over the Easter holidays. However, following a successful social media campaign by the footballer, and the prospect of a backbench revolt over the subject, his policy forced Johnson into a dramatic U-turn, only an hour before a commons vote was due on the matter.

Unfortunately for Williamson, he fits the governmental scapegoat profile perfectly. Public failings and humiliations? Check. Expendability? Check. This government haven’t staked their reputations on his appointment, and it wouldn’t cause a major embarrassment if he goes. He’ll probably feel aggrieved if he loses his job and Hancock – who’s probably had more cock-ups – doesn’t, but that’s politics.

Robert Jenrick: Housing, communities and local government secretary Robert Jenrick is the youngest current member of the cabinet at 38, and generally he has been quite popular among the cabinet. So far he has given a good account of himself by taking some of the daily government briefings.

But, the case against Jenrick is relatively damning. The Sunday Times recently ran a huge spread on his role in a cash-for-favours scandal with Tory party donor, property developer and ex-pornographer, Richard Desmond.

It is reported that Jenrick watched a promotional video for a £1bn luxury housing development on the mobile phone of Desmond at a Conservative Party conference, only a fortnight before he overruled his officials and planning inspectors to approve the scheme. It is also alleged his actions came 24 hours before a local levy would have forced Desmond to pay upwards of £100 million for the developments. Desmond also declared a £12,000 gift to the Tories before Jenrick approved the plan. It doesn’t look good…

The ‘cash-for-favours’ image of the Conservative Party will be one which they will be keen to move away from. Especially considering this kind of billionaire cronyism does not look good to their new friends in the North who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019. It seems unlikely he will survive a reshuffle.

Theresa Coffey: The work and pensions secretary Theresa Coffey virtually wrote her own resignation with a simple five worded tweet last week. She was appointed to the role last September and was seen by many as a temporary measure at the time, with many surprised that she escaped, unshuffled in February.

In May, she created a headache for the Conservative press office when she attempted to pass the buck and blame blunders on COVID testing and the care home crisis on the ‘wrong science’. This forced a rebuttal from Downing Street to clarify that it is ministers who decide what action to take, not scientists.

More controversially, she heaped additional negative attention on the government during the ‘COVID summer school fund’ row. She tweeted a shoo-in for read-the-room tweet of the year, after footballer Marcus Rashford had garnered enormous public support for his #maketheUturn campaign on free school meals during the summer holidays, using a thread of powerful tweets. She honed-in on a minor factual inaccuracy in one tweet and simply replied: “water cannot be disconnected though.” In doing so: she infuriated those on the Conservative backbenches who had been urging the government to reconsider its stance, and her lack of judgement essentially turned a terrible situation into a fatal one.

Crucially, Ms Coffey made her unnecessary blunders from an initial position of weakness. No doubt the department of work and pensions will have a fresh face come September.

There is still around two and a half months before the proposed September reshuffle and Johnson will be looking to get rid of the jokers in the pack. There is still time for ministers to make career defining gaffes which may alter their future. Although Williamson, Jenrick and Coffey all look increasingly likely to face the axe, nothing is yet set in stone. 

There is no escaping the fact that the Conservatives have a big problem on their hands. Britain recently came in last place in YouGov’s international league table in terms of public perception of government management of the crisis. Having gone from a relative point of strength in this crisis, as of June 10th, the approval rating of the government’s response to the crisis was at 32%, whilst those disapproving had moved up to 49%. For a government which – according to its own backbenches – has become addicted to polling data, this does not bode well.

Their saving grace is that a general election is four years away.  But the scale of their failure means that cabinet scapegoats will be needed to deflect attention and aid their recovery.

It doesn’t look like it’ll be big beast on the menu come September, Johnson is pinning his hopes on the Conservative voters being content with an entree of small fry.

Photo by Tony Shertila on Flickr.

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