Was it a twist of fate, or pure coincidence that as LVI C Politics were discussing the famous ‘Granita Pact’ between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and the subsequent fallout between the two in the early 2000s, that alerts came through to all and sundry announcing the start of yet another bloodbath at Number 10. Poor old Sajid Javid was forced to fall on his sword in the Treasury, paving the way for his young ‘padawan’ Rishi Sunak to take his position in Number 11 Downing Street. Javid also has to suffer the double ignominy of being the second shortest Chancellor of all time and also only the second Chancellor to have never delivered a budget!
Other heads for the chop were slightly more expected: Julian Smith, Andrea Leadsom and Geoffrey Cox were all still seen as ‘hangers on’ from the May administration and also were rumoured not to toe the line when it came to the policy of not speaking out during Cabinet meetings. Strangely, the Minister for the Victorian era, Jacob Rees-Mogg, managed to retain his position as Leader of the House, despite his disastrous antics during the 2019 election campaign, showing that he is still potentially seen as a threatening, annoying rebel that needs to be kept close, despite his unpopularity with the electorate.
The major winners in this re-shuffle are two Boris Johnson loyalists who had been tipped for higher office since he became party leader in July 2019. Rishi Sunak was destined for a promotion after deputising so well for the PM during a number of leadership debates through the campaign. Being essentially the Deputy Chancellor (Chief Secretary to The Treasury) also meant that should the circumstance arise where Javid was no longer in a position to deliver the upcoming budget, then Sunak could seamlessly step up and hold out the red box. In addition, Alok Sharma has been given the Business portfolio but also been made President of the upcoming UN Climate Conference in Glasgow this November, which will put him centre stage and shoulder to shoulder with powerful leaders from around the world. Perhaps this is a stepping stone towards the Foreign Office should Dominic Raab slip up in the next couple of years.
Going back to the Blair-Brown relationship, it is clear that that Javid’s end was a pre-planned power-grab by Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings. The Treasury is famous for being the institution that famously says ‘no’ to everything, much the same as the CFO role in most major corporations. Gordon Brown was a thorn in Blair’s side throughout his time in office; preventing Blair from joining the Euro, restricting further market-orientated approaches to public services, obstructing the introduction of university top-up fees to name a few. Despite being best friends, David Cameron was often hindered by his Chancellor George Osbourne, who managed to use the Treasury as the driving force behind the coalitions ‘austerity’ agenda and in term sidelining a number of Cameron’s plans for social reform.
Both Cummings and Johnson are keen students of History and would have seen that the future of a Javid led Treasury would go the same way as its predecessors. Both were furious with Javid for breaking ranks early and backing HS2 in public two weeks ago, prior to the official announcement being made. At the same time Javid had apparently grown tired of being branded ‘CHINO’ (Chancellor in name only) by members of his party, who saw him as being a puppet whilst Cummings pulled the Treasury strings and wanted to drive a wedge between the Prime Minister and his senior adviser. In Number 10 this morning he was presented with the option of staying as Chancellor, but only if all of his personal Treasury advisers were sacked in favour of a joint advisory team linked to Number 10, leaving Javid no other option than to tender his resignation.
With the loyal Sunak in place, Cummings and Johnson now effectively are CEO and CFO of the UK Government. This means that with the Treasury under their control, they can now embark on their post-Brexit plans without any threat of resistance. This may seem like a smart move at first, given the scope of promises made in the Conservative manifesto, in particular on infrastructure and additional investment plans for the north of England. However it essentially is the first nail in the coffin of cabinet government and very much the start of the return to the Blair era of ‘sofa government’, with most major decisions being taken by the new Triumvirate of Johnson, Cummings and Sunak.
History also shows that this type of government rarely ends well. Both Thatcher and Blair governed in a Presidential manner, continuing to extend the power they had over their Cabinet whenever they got the opportunity. The problem with this is simple. The Prime Minister is not a President. They are ‘Prima Inter Pares’, first among equals. If Cabinet members are undermined enough and not given the autonomy to complete their own briefs, then they will slowly lose patience with their leader, culminating in disunity at Whitehall and eventually leading to the ‘men in grey suits’ paying a visit to Number 10 to tell the Prime Minister to send for the removal van.
It is clear that Boris is once again not afraid to take risks, but it would be fair to say that this re-shuffle does have the high likelihood of blowing up in his face just as his post-majority, honeymoon period comes to an end.