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Boris Johnson Rearranges His Cabinet. It Could Use a Redesign.

Boris Johnson Rearranges His Cabinet. It Could Use a Redesign.

Saturday, 18 September, 2021 - 05:15

Reshuffle is the right word for it — as in, take a deck of cards and mix it around. Boris Johnson’s new cabinet is mainly populated by names of those who have already been part of the ministerial team.

As of Wednesday evening, at least four cabinet members have been sacked, while others have been moved to different positions, with more cabinet announcements and the junior ministerial positions still to come. There are more women in senior posts. But if you were looking for the Emma Raducanu of British politics — a dazzling talent that’s catapulted to the top ranks — you’re out of luck. Johnson is portraying this as a reshuffle to refocus on his promise to “build back better,” but a new governing vision will need more than slogans.

Cabinet shakeups, a regular ritual of British politics, can serve many different purposes. They can help with party management. They can be used to reward loyalists and high performers, or punish ministers who’ve messed up. They can reset a government whose polling numbers are flagging and offer the public some fresh faces. And they can signal a shift in policy.

The main point of Wednesday’s reshuffle appears to be to shore up the Conservatives’ poll numbers ahead of what may be a tough winter. (A YouGov poll earlier this month had the Tories behind Labour for the first time since the start of the year.) But in order to win over voters, the prime minister needs to actually articulate the direction he wants the new cabinet to take and how he plans to meet the challenges of the post-pandemic period.

That isn’t to say there aren’t improvements or some logic to the moves. Replacing Gavin Williamson, whose errors as Education Secretary are too numerous to list, with Nadhim Zahawi, who won plaudits for the vaccine rollout, was wise. Dominic Raab’s quasi-demotion to Justice Secretary from the Foreign Office (he kept his deputy prime minister hat) reflects his poor handling of the Afghanistan crisis. Liz Truss, who topped Tory popularity contests as Trade Secretary, is a natural choice for replacement.

Managing reshuffles is not easy. The last one, in Feb. 2020, went awry when Sajid Javid quit as Chancellor over who would control his advisers, handing Downing Street a new headache as it had to reshuffle its own reshuffle.

Reshuffles can also create casualties that hurt government. Robert Buckland, a barrister, was by most accounts a successful and popular Justice Secretary. It seems the only reason he’s out is that a place needed to be made for Raab somewhere. Whether Raab will have a tougher line on, say, the Human Rights Act isn’t clear.

One risk for the prime minister is that those who were written out of the script can cause troubles from the parliamentary back benches down the road. Former cabinet ministers such as Theresa May (also a former prime minister) and Jeremy Hunt have been powerful voices on key debates, and with each reshuffle there are a few more.

Another danger is that reshuffles toss aside whatever expertise ministers have accumulated. That is the nature of cabinet government in the British system, but churn is inefficient. It means ministers are incentivized toward short-termism, time is wasted in getting the new head of the department up to speed and not much is done.

Whether Johnson has a new game plan to match his new lineup isn’t yet clear, but he’ll need one. Inflation is already ahead of expectations and the sharp rise ahead in utility bills will only further impact consumer bills. That will create pain for poorer households at a time when furlough support is ending, and the government is set to remove a weekly uplift to welfare payments.

All of this comes as UK taxes hit their highest level as a percentage of GDP in at least 50 years, with the burden falling most heavily on younger workers. And it’s not like there is much room to spend more. Government debt is now around 100% of GDP and the budget deficit (or net borrowing) was a huge 14.5% of GDP in the year to March 2021 (the euro-zone average was 7.4% for the first quarter). Johnson has promised to improve public services and rebalance the UK economy, but he’s running out of levers to pull.

Some of this is down to the pandemic, which nobody was ready for. But the costs of Brexit are piling up too. Johnson is hemmed in by his promises to both spend more and tax less.

As anyone who has ever refurbished a home knows, ripping out the old stuff is the easy part. Rebuilding is the real headache. Get the plumbing, wiring and plastering wrong and problems will always come through, however nice the new wallpaper. That’s worth bearing in mind as Johnson’s new team gets its finishing touches.


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