When you take a step back, it is easy to question the point of Government reshuffles. You appoint a politician to be in charge of a brutally complex subject like the education or health system, and then a couple of years later, as they are finally becoming an expert, you change everything and the process starts again. You also create a lot of enemies by sacking people, and unlike a normal job, the sacked party does not disappear, but remains a back bench MP with power to vote against you and make your life a misery.
So why bother? What’s Johnson playing at? There are a few things that will have pushed the Prime Minister to act. First of all, he wants to draw a line and a reshuffle is a symbolic way of doing that. He is almost two years into his term, and times have been absolutely grim. New faces in Government will, Johnson hopes, encourage people to view this as a new post-pandemic chapter.
There have also been some structural changes, perhaps most interestingly to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Michael Gove’s new department now has responsibility for levelling up, and the union. Levelling up is arguably the Government’s single most important election pledge, so by embedding this in MHCLG, Johnson has massively empowered the department and elevated his old friend Gove, almost to the level of the Education and Health Secretaries in terms of seniority.
On top of the above reasons, there were a few ministers who just needed to go, Gavin Williamson being the most obvious one. Having said that however, some of the reshuffling seemed quite brutal and unnecessary. Robert Buckland had been in Government for seven years and was, on most accounts, a pretty decent Justice Secretary. Even more baffling is the case of Penny Mordaunt, shunted sideways from the Cabinet Office despite being generally perceived as an excellent Minister and rising star.
Ultimately, lots of this is about Boris flexing his muscles. He has had his detractors during his time in power, and has not always seemed like a man with an 80 seat majority. The Chancellor Rishi Sunak has at times enjoyed popularity that has seemed a real threat to Johnson, and the testimony of a certain Mr Cummings will not have helped in painting the PM as a man hopelessly lunging from one direction to the other, without much in the way of vision or authority.
This week, Johnson has reasserted that authority and shown MPs that he is still the boss. The PM has the sort of majority that allows him to hire and fire as he pleases, and proceeding with this substantial reshuffle sends the message that he is not afraid to do exactly that.