Boris Johnson asserted his dominance over the government with a larger-than-expected reshuffle which swept under-performing ministers out of the cabinet and delivered demotions for “big beasts” Michael Gove and Dominic Raab.
In a shake-up characterised by No 10 as creating a team to “build back better” after the Covid pandemic, the prime minister replaced Raab with Liz Truss as foreign secretary following his humiliation over Afghanistan and dismissed Gavin Williamson as education secretary after a succession of missteps culminating in him confusing Marcus Rashford with another black sports star.
He signalled his determination to continue stoking culture wars by putting Nadine Dorries in charge of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The long-time Johnson ally, who has previously inveighed against “left-wing snowflakes”, will have a crucial say in the future of the BBC and Channel 4 and appointments to influential positions like the chair of media regulator Ofcom.
In a concession to restive Tory backbenchers, Johnson sacked Robert Jenrick, whose planning reforms – now set to be watered down – had caused fury in leafy Conservative heartland seats.
In his place he put Mr Gove, who adds responsibilities for Mr Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda, electoral reform and preserving the Union to a beefed-up Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government which some at Westminster were describing as a department for intractable problems.
After a successful stint as vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi joined the cabinet as education secretary, with the crucial job of putting schools and universities on an even keel after two years of shutdowns and cancelled exams due to the Covid pandemic.
And Tory grassroots darling Truss was rewarded for her indefatigable global travels in search of post-Brexit trade deals by being made only the second woman ever to hold the post of foreign secretary.
Mr Raab resisted his demotion to justice secretary and Lord Chancellor, accepting only after being granted the title of deputy prime minister, formally confirming the position he previously held on a de facto basis as first secretary of state.
His appointment will alarm liberties campaigners because of his long-standing distaste for the European Convention on Human Rights and Human Rights Act and advocacy for their replacement with a British bill of rights.
He inherits a massive backlog of court cases from predecessor Robert Buckland, whose dismissal was condemned by Commons Justice Committee chair, Tory MP Bob Neill, as “unjust and outrageous”.
One of few remaining ministers from the Tories’ One Nation wing, Buckland was a QC who was well-regarded in legal circles but presided over an ever-shrinking justice budget.
In other moves, Stephen Barclay was shifted from chief secretary of the Treasury – where he was at the heart of preparations for next month’s crucial spending review – to succeed Mr Gove as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Oliver Dowden moved from the culture brief to become the cabinet-level Tory Party chair and minister without portfolio, replacing Amanda Milling, whose dismissal was seen in part as punishment for the crushing by-election defeat in Conservative stronghold Chesham and Amersham in June.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan took Ms Truss’s old job as international trade secretary, regaining the cabinet seat she lost when her former Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign Office. Her return boosted female representation from five to six out of 23 full cabinet members.
In a reshuffle which signalled little change in political direction but an apparent determination to put the travails of Brexit and Covid behind him and focus on domestic priorities like economic recovery and jobs, Mr Johnson kept key ministers like chancellor Rishi Sunak, home secretary Priti Patel – subject of much speculation about her position – and health secretary Sajid Javid in their posts.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner denounced the reshuffle as a distraction from the vote called by the party in the Commons on the impending £1,000-a-year cut in Universal Credit benefits. With Mr Johnson ordering Tory MPs to stay away, the vote to halt the removal of a £20 weekly coronavirus uplift to UC was passed by 253 to zero, but is not binding on the government. Four Conservatives – Peter Aldous (Waveney), John Stevenson (Carlisle), Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) and William Wragg (Hazel Grove) – rebelled to vote with Labour.
Former ministers sacked from cabinet will receive £16,000 severance payments just as UC claimants see a hit to their incomes at the start of next month.
“Labour forcing a vote to stop the Tories from taking £1,000 from 6 million families and driving more children into poverty matters a lot more to the lives of people than the reshuffle gossip of who’s up and who’s down,” said Ms Rayner.
She welcomed the dismissal of Mr Williamson, describing him as a “prat” who had “damaged the life chances of our country’s children”, and warned that Mr Raab “wants to scrap workers’ rights and ‘doesn’t believe in’ economic and social rights”.
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper said Mr Williamson had been “the most incompetent education secretary in living memory”, but branded his successor Mr Zahawi as “completely out of touch” after he claimed in an interview last year that families would rather pay “a modest amount” than accept free school meals.
Broadcasting union Bectu voiced alarm over best-selling author Ms Dorries’ appointment.
“The new culture secretary needs to focus more on supporting our cultural industries and less on stoking divisive culture wars,” said Mick Clancy, general secretary of Bectu’s parent union Prospect.
“Instead of an agenda of undermining much loved institutions like the BBC, National Trust and Channel 4, government should be celebrating an industry in which the UK is the envy of the world and putting culture and our creative workforce at the centre of our post-Covid economy.”