In the weeks after Boris Johnson’s election victory, a cabinet minister paid a visit to Downing Street to discuss their brief. It wasn’t to pitch a flagship policy or suggest a personal programme of radical reform. Instead, their message to the No 10 operation was simple: what do you want to do?
This secretary of state had clocked early on what’s only now dawning on many ministers – and former ministers – in the wake of Thursday’s reshuffle. The minister had read the tea leaves and worked out that the best way to get on in this government was to show No 10 that you would drive forward its agenda.
With an 80-seat majority, Johnson’s government is going to run things from No 10. That is where the power lies. Those unconvinced need only look to the events of Thursday. What had originally been planned as a Valentine’s Day massacre was scaled down. Rather than sacking cabinet ministers in double figures, Johnson opted for a meagre five. The suggestion was that many ministers had corrected their behaviour to the extent that they were now able to stay in post.
But the lower casualty number doesn’t mean this wasn’t a radical reshuffle. The entire process was focused on one thing: giving No 10 control. The ministers who failed to avoid the axe – who included Julian Smith and Andrea Leadsom – had all at one point in their careers done something to make No 10 question their loyalty.
Johnson had not intended to let Sajid Javid go – even if few of Johnson’s aides will be too downcast over the chancellor’s departure. The prime minister began their conversation by praising the work Javid had done. However, when it became clear that Javid would not go along with No 10’s plan for centralising power, things hit an insurmountable obstacle.
The chancellor chose to go, after being told that to stay he would need to sack all of his team of aides, bar one. The reason? To allow for a new unit of No 10-approved aides, who would work in tandem with the Treasury and No 10 to allow for joined-up thinking on all economic decisions. These reforms were actually something David Cameron and George Osborne had planned to carry out had they won a majority in 2010, but critics have been quick to see the move as an erosion of the Treasury’s power.
What’s happening to the Treasury is only the same as what is happening to every other government department. When ministers were summoned to No 10 as part of the reshuffle, they first met with Boris Johnson and the chief whip, Mark Spencer. Here they were told what a good job they had done and how happy the prime minister was with their work.
After that encounter, some were sent to speak with Johnson’s senior aide, Dominic Cummings, or Munira Mirza, No 10’s head of policy. In these meetings they were informed of the details of required personnel changes in their teams and their policy priorities going forward. In theory, these were two-way conversations, but the message was simple: this is what we want you to do – now do it.
Several cabinet ministers have been separated from long-serving special advisers. In some cases this is because they are seen as better suited to roles elsewhere. In others, it’s to make sure that any departments with the potential to become a rival power base to No 10 are stopped.
This is just one way in which the centralisation of power is manifesting itself. Those politicians promoted in the reshuffle have all shown in the past that they have the ability to serve loyally. The new international development secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, was a thorn in the side of the Theresa May government as a committed Brexiteer and member of the European Research Group – but to this government she is a loyalist. During the leave campaign, she was one of a very few MPs singled out for praise by Cummings. Likewise, Johnson’s long-time supporter Amanda Milling has been put in the role of party chairman.
Those cabinet members with strong views about their new briefs have opinions that match No 10’s. Take Suella Braverman. The Brexiteer barrister surprised many when she was appointed attorney general. Yet she has been very vocal about her desire to clamp down on the role of the judiciary in political decision-making and ensure that the government is the source of the law – an agenda shared by Johnson and Cummings.
In this reshuffle, No 10 got what it wanted. Even though Johnson would have rather Javid stayed on as chancellor, it could only have been on the prime minister’s terms. But after this reshuffle, he can no longer avoid responsibility for his government’s actions.
The prime minister and his team spent the general election successfully shrugging off Tory policies of the past as having little to do with them. And when things went wrong, they could make Javid take the flak. Now that No 10 has its way, it will be much harder for Johnson to shift the blame in the coming months and years if his best-laid plans go awry.
• Katy Balls is the Spectator’s deputy political editor