22 July 2019

While the temptation of a new prime minister is change for change’s sake, Jill Rutter argues that the new PM needs to balance this with a commitment to stability.

Should he become Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has made a “new energy” and a “can-do spirit” his central campaign promise. That suggests that he is planning a clean sweep of the people who conspired in or endorsed Theresa May’s little loved Brexit deal.

He would not be alone if he chooses to instigate a wholesale change at the top table. Gordon Brown left virtually no minister unshuffled when he drew a line under the Blair years in 2007, making a whole set of pointless moves at both Cabinet level and through the junior ministerial ranks. But Brown was not facing what looks set to be the most turbulent three months in British politics since the start of the Second World War. A period of ministerial continuity – and maybe even calm – could be essential.  

Changes will be forced on Johnson – but there is a case for retaining some current secretaries of state 

A number of ministers have already handed in their red boxes; others have made it clear that they will be sending in their “Dear, Theresa” letters before they give a Johnson administration the pleasure of giving them the sack. Those who were early backers, or at least converts to the cause, will all be waiting in the wings for promotions, and those who had the temerity not to #BackBoris will fear demotion. But the new Prime Minister needs to focus on how to govern well over the next three months – and the immediacy of the Brexit challenge places enormous importance on jobs which are normally lower down the Cabinet pecking order.

Newspapers are busy speculating whether Michael Gove will move up or down due to his history with Johnson. A strong case can be made for keeping him at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The department is in the crosshairs of no deal, and it would be madness to appoint a new secretary of state just three months before a possible no deal exit. Gove has also been one of the few – perhaps the only – successes of the May Government. He has pushed the environment up the agenda, won over a sceptical lobby and has ambitious long-term plans – both for the environment and, in an area where there is broad agreement, to capitalise on the UK’s departure from the Common Agricultural Policy and reform support for farmers. Defra is a much more important post in a post-Brexit world.

Similar arguments could apply to keeping Liam Fox in place at the Department for International Trade, where the priority is to roll over existing free trade agreements, and for slightly different reasons to retain Matt Hancock at the Department for Health and Social Care and Amber Rudd at the Department for Work and Pensions. Unless he is PM, a case could also be made for keeping Jeremy Hunt at the Foreign Office to deal with the Iran crisis.

If Cabinet ministers are moved then there is a case for junior ministerial continuity

The case for stability until 31 October, or when a Brexit resolution is reached, should also apply to transport and even more so in Northern Ireland – the threat to no deal looms large and attempts to reestablish the power-sharing executive are ongoing. But Chris Grayling and Karen Bradley, the respective Secretaries of State, have only kept their positions through loyalty to – and from – the outgoing PM in the face of near universal criticism of their performances, so they are both likely casualties. If they do go, it will be important to ensure some degree of ministerial continuity in those departments.

Given the precariousness of Northern Ireland – and the steep learning curve for a GB politician – it would also be a good idea to appoint ministers from the narrow band who have prior exposure to Northern Ireland issues and politics, rather than use the department as a punishment posting. In other departments too, the Prime Minister should be inclined towards some stability among ministers of state if a secretary of state has moved.

This is not the time to reorganise government departments – the new PM needs to save energy for Brexit

Theresa May’s first act on becoming Prime Minister was to create two new departments – the Brexit department became a long-running source of tension and the Department for International Trade gave, perhaps unintentionally, a signal about the direction of Brexit policy.

So far, the only signal that Boris Johnson has given over any machinery of government changes is a suggestion that the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) would become a no deal department. In practice, this means little more than a recognition of the status quo. DExEU’s legislative branch looks like the Marie Celeste – though it would need to be speedily reactivated if the PM brought a deal back to Parliament – and negotiations moved to No.10 with Olly Robbins, the PM’s outgoing chief Brexit negotiator, in September 2017. Theresa May acquiesced in allowing DExEU to prepare to coordinate for the next phase, but a new PM should revisit that decision if and when it approaches. For now, however, it is not an imminent prospect.

A new prime minister should resist creating unnecessary upheaval. It distracts, and it takes time. The pay off – if any – takes years rather than weeks or months, and time is not on the next PM's side. Any dramatic reorganisation or root and branch reshuffle should wait.

Comments

But if the new PM's governing philosophy is that what is needed is more belief, hope and can-do energy, by definition the fault lies with the incumbent doubters, nihilists, and worn-down, void-peering, foot-shuffling defeatists. That philosophy demands the bloodiest possible auto-da-fé and elevation of an entirely new priesthood to run the strange cult that has taken over the country.

On the other hand, I think the new PM's best call would be to:
(1) Wait until EC confirms no move in the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop, money
(2) Press no-deal but know and hope that Parliament will block it
(3) Appeal to the public over the head of parliament by calling a referendum - no-deal v. remain with a mandatory outcome.
(4) Campaign to win for appearance, hope to lose for survival and self-interest.
(5) Accept that if remain wins, with one bound he would be freed by the will-of-the-people and rule of law
(6) Consign the whole miserable fiasco to history thereby avoiding the new PM spending his time in office in perpetual crisis and ignominious failure
(7) Appoint whoever you like to Cabinet... frankly, it wouldn't matter - they couldn't be worse than Brexit itself