Sunak has less to lose in Whitehall shake-up, but not much to gain
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Good morning. Rishi Sunak has completed his first reshuffle and goes into the parliamentary recess feeling that he has overseen a job well done.
Speaking of parliamentary recess, I’m off on holiday for the next week and a half but don’t worry, Inside Politics will still be here every weekday. Filling in will be a great (worryingly so, actually) cast of FT journalists from across the nations and regions of the UK.
Today’s note is on Sunak’s reshuffle and its consequences.
Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to [email protected]
Come and get it BEIS
As far as his own purposes are concerned, Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle couldn’t have gone better. He has more allies around the cabinet table and in the government today than he did yesterday. By bringing in Lee Anderson as deputy party chair (an essentially meaningless role), he has bolstered his own position among MPs who won back Labour seats in 2019 and fear that the prime minister doesn’t “get” them.
Yes, in a reflection of his weakened state, he wasn’t able to conduct as wide-ranging a reshuffle as he might have hoped. (Over at the Times, Steven Swinford, Olly Wright and Chris Smyth report that Sunak hoped to persuade Michael Gove, levelling up secretary, to take the role of secretary of state for science and technology. Gove declined, meaning the shake-up ended up smaller than Sunak had envisioned.)
Reshuffles always come at a cost. There are MPs who are disgruntled not to have jobs today. And don’t rule out that tomorrow the MPs celebrating Lee Anderson’s new gig will notice that the balance of the new ministers is to the left of where it was yesterday. But thus far, the cost is much smaller than it could have been.
Although the changes to the structure of government will be disruptive, it’s as good a time as any for a government to try to remodel Whitehall.
Two new departments covering energy security and net zero, and science, innovation and technology, will be carved out of the business department, which will in turn be rebranded as the Department for Business and Trade.
Yes, it does have costs in terms of both organisational focus and cash (business leaders tell the FT here about their concerns). There are a series of significant pieces of legislation either being put through or promised from the affected departments. In addition to the online safety bill, there is the data protection and digital information bill, whose future is already somewhat uncertain, and there is also the promised digital markets bill. But given the Conservative party’s internal divisions those bills were already set for considerable hurdles in any case.
With the Tories so divided, there is less to lose currently in remodelling Whitehall because the government’s policy agenda is, by necessity, thin. Happily, these changes hark back to Gordon Brown’s Whitehall reorganisation in 2007, and they go with the groove of what the Labour party has already committed to doing should they win the next election. The chances that these changes will actually be able to bed in are pretty high.
The big downside to these moves from a Conservative perspective is that it is hard to see what Sunak himself has gained from them, or what they do to improve the Conservative party’s position. I don’t think anyone thinks that the Tory party woke up yesterday only a science ministry away from good political health.
That is adding to the noises off and the side-of-the-mouth complaints from Conservatives that the prime minister just isn’t political enough to lead them. But those complaints are nothing worth worrying about — for the moment.
Now try this
I saw The Whale yesterday: a mesmerising central performance from Brendan Fraser and a wonderful score, too. I always enjoy a good cry in the cinema now and again because I’m overly sentimental and it’s a very good film for that, also. Opinions were split at the FT, though: Raphael Abraham rather liked it while Danny Leigh . . . did not.
I’ll see you a week on Monday!
Top stories today
Zelenskyy to visit UK | Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will visit the UK today to meet Rishi Sunak and address parliament, as Britain announced plans to provide the country with more weaponry.
Gove’s ministry banned from capital spending | Michael Gove’s Whitehall department has been banned from making spending decisions on new capital projects without specific permission from the Treasury. Concerns were raised about the ministry’s ability to deliver value for money.
Testy times for UK-EU relations | Brussels is demanding clarification from London after tens of thousands of EU citizens living in the UK were abruptly denied the right to remain, leaving them potentially liable to repay welfare benefits.
Rail reform | Transport secretary Mark Harper has said train operators will be incentivised to make greater profits under long-awaited government reforms of Britain’s railways, as he criticised the “financially unsustainable” and “broken” network.
‘Blood is in the water’ | Gordon Brown has urged the head of energy regulator Ofgem to quit over the scandal that has seen hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Britons forced to switch to costly prepayment meters, the Independent reports.