Ben Wallace is out. Grant Shapps is the new defence secretary. And Claire Coutinho is in the cabinet. So what does Rishi Sunak's mini-reshuffle tells us about his priorities for government?
Rishi Sunak has announced minor changes to his ministerial team following the resignation of Ben Wallace, who is stepping down from frontline politics after four years as defence secretary.
1. Sunak has held off on making major changes
It had been rumoured that the prime minister would undertake a more extensive reshuffle, but Wallace’s resignation resulted in changes to the occupants of just three posts.
Sunak has been in post for less than a year, as have many of his ministers, and there have already been several changes to his ministerial team. These include the changes following the resignation of Dominic Raab in April and those that took place at the mini-reshuffle in February following the break-up of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Ministers need time to get their feet under the table and start enacting their programmes, and Sunak needs time to work out who is performing most effectively. While it makes sense for the opposition to hold a reshuffle well in advance of the election expected next year, the prime minister’s decision to hold off on major change for now seems wise especially considering the levels of ministerial churn in 2022.
2. Wallace had rare ministerial longevity
Ben Wallace put in a long stint in his former role, and leaves office as the third longest-serving post-war defence secretary, and the longest-serving Conservative in that post.
Wallace was one of just two cabinet ministers to have been originally appointed to his role in Boris Johnson’s first cabinet, in July 2019. The other, Alister Jack, remains Scotland secretary.
3. Defence has become a bigger job in recent years – but Shapps has plenty of experience
Wallace has been replaced at defence by Grant Shapps, who has moved from his previous energy brief and is one of the more experienced members of Sunak’s cabinet. Shapps has held five different secretary of state roles in the little over four years since Boris Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, and also served as a minister of state from 2010 to 2016. He fell out of favour when Theresa May became PM but has served in the cabinets of all three of her successors, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.
He inherits what has become a major brief, with the war in Ukraine showing no signs of ending and a major effort underway to modernise and increase funding for the armed forces. The PM and the chancellor have committed to increasing defence spending to 2.5% of GDP but have not put a timetable on this promise, 22 Sabbagh D, ‘Ben Wallace vows to press PM over military spending pledge’, The Guardian, 18 July 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, www.theguardian.com/politics/2023/jul/18/ben-wallace-vows-to-press-pm-over-military-spending-pledge and the large cash-terms increase in spending granted to the MoD in the spring budget now looks less generous after higher-than-expected inflation. 23 Kirk-Wade E, ‘UK defence expenditure’, Commons Library, 20 April 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8175
The appointment of Shapps is unlikely to change government policy on the biggest strategic defence issues, as set out earlier this year in an updated 'Integrated Review' of security, defence, development and foreign policy. 24 Cabinet Office, ‘Integrated Review Refresh 2023: Responding to a more contested and volatile world’, Gov.uk, retrieved 31 August 2023, www.gov.uk/government/publications/integrated-review-refresh-2023-responding-to-a-more-contested-and-volatile-world The world is still "contested and volatile", as the review put it, and so the core priorities – a commitment to multilateralism and NATO, support for Ukraine and a diplomatic Indo-Pacific tilt – remain. The new defence secretary’s Whitehall tactics will be worth watching, and how good a job he does will be defined by how far he embraces or resists the Treasury's ever-present pressure for efficiencies in the defence budget and how he manages providing supplies to Ukraine while maintaining UK defence capability.
Shapps’ appointment also means that Penny Mordaunt, who served as Theresa May’s defence secretary, remains the only woman to have held the role.
4. More change at DESNZ
Shapps’ departure means Rishi Sunak has chosen to disrupt his new energy security and net zero department just seven months after it was created. Leadership churn will not be helpful in a department with a long to-do list. New secretary of state Claire Coutinho’s legislative in-tray is tricky: she immediately picks up the energy bill, whose Commons report stage is scheduled for next week’s return of parliament, and will have to deal with amendments flying at her from both sides of the increasingly contentious post-Uxbridge net zero debate. 27 House of Commons, Energy Bill [HL], As Amended, Report Stage: 31 August 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/cbill/58-03/0340/amend/energy_rm_rep_0831.pdf Indications since the by-election suggest that the Conservatives want to make the costs of net zero a wedge issue at the next election.
The budget later this autumn is also when chancellor Jeremy Hunt is likely to unveil whatever response he thinks the UK needs to make to the US’s Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s Green Deal subsidies. This is another potential election battleground, with Labour committed to ramping up green spending over the course of the next parliament if elected, something the government is not keen to match – though we do not know how deep they had to dig to persuade Tata to set up its battery production plant in Somerset.
Coutinho also faces questions over the viability of the next round of offshore wind licensing, pressure on the electric vehicle charging and heat pump roll-outs, and energy bills more generally, even though the price cap has come down considerably. She and Sunak will also need to decide how to respond to the Climate Change Committee’s charge that the UK has lost its international leadership position on climate change since COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. 28 Cooper C and Wallace A, ‘Rishi Sunak has lost global climate leader status, say its own expert advisers, Politico EU, 28 June 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, www.politico.eu/article/uk-rishi-sunak-has-lost-global-climate-leader-status-say-its-own-expert-advisers
Coutinho’s first cabinet role is a major promotion – she has only been a parliamentary under-secretary of state, the most junior ministerial role, so far in her career, and is the first of the 2019 intake to become a cabinet minister. This promotion may reflect her close relationship with the PM – she was Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary (PPS) when he was chancellor and served as his special adviser before being elected.
5. Johnston has the right experience for the children's minister brief – but will have a heaving in-tray
Coutinho has been replaced as children's minister by David Johnston – another 2019-er, who takes on his first full ministerial role. Unlike some appointments at reshuffles, Johnston has plenty of relevant experience for the education brief. He served on the education select committee when first elected as an MP, was the PPS at DfE between 2021 and 2022, and was chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation before entering parliament.
The children’s minister must deal with creaking mental health services which are struggling to meet surging demand from children – only 48% of the estimated 1.4 million children with a mental health disorder having at least one contact with professional services 33 Whittaker F, ‘Rise in child mental health demand prompts call to speed up school support reforms’, Schools Week, 8 March 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, https://schoolsweek.co.uk/rise-in-child-mental-health-demand-prompts-call-to-speed-up-school-support-reforms/ - and a children’s social care sector facing multiple crises. While the DfE is delivering a suite of consultations linked to its ambitions to reform the social care sector, 34 Department for Education, ‘Consultation: children's social care: stable homes, built on love’, Gov.uk, 2 February 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/childrens-social-care-stable-homes-built-on-love immediate pressing concerns including insufficient appropriate placements to meet the needs of children in local authority care 35 Department for Education, Consolidated annual report and accounts for the year ended 31 March 2023, Gov.uk, 18 July 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1171616/Department_for_Education_Consolidated_annual_…, page 111 and a workforce crisis – characterised by record levels of vacancies, falling staffing levels and higher caseloads. 36 Samuel M, ‘Number of frontline children’s social workers down 8% since 2020 as vacancies soar’, Community Care, 23 February 2023, retrieved 31 August 2023, https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2023/02/23/number-of-frontline-childrens-social-workers-down-8-since-2020-as-vacancies-soar/ Johnston will have to plenty to occupy his attention in his first ministerial post.
This blog also contains analysis by Sachin Savur, Philip Nye and Tim Durrant