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Here’s a secret. How can you tell if cabinet ministers are good at running their departments? You can’t! Most ministers are judged on whether they can go on TV and recite lines they haven’t written, to defend policies they haven’t devised, whose results they probably won’t be around long enough to see.
So, thank you, Boris Johnson. He appointed some ministers so bad that anyone could see their failings: Dominic Raab, Robert Jenrick, Gavin Williamson. This week’s cabinet reshuffle wasn’t chopping deadwood. It was removing ministers who kept accidentally starting forest fires. Sacking Williamson was so predictable that it could have been auctioned at the Tories’ Black-and-White Ball fundraiser.
But what does this reshuffle tells us about Johnson? First, for all his tough-on-crime bravado, the prime minister doesn’t care who runs the justice system. Raab, having failed as foreign secretary, became justice secretary, with deputy prime minister as a consolation. Only in Britain can you be demoted to deputy prime minister, but still, it’s nice to see Raab finally working hard to resettle someone — albeit himself.
What else? That Johnson wants to promote women? Please. The proportion of women attending cabinet — 27 per cent — is lower now than when Tony Blair left office in 2007.
The reshuffle does explode the myth that Johnson ignores public pressure. Since last year, the Daily Mail has called for the sackings of Jenrick, travelling svengali Dominic Cummings and the then health secretary Matt Hancock, and for Williamson and Raab to consider their positions. It seems the prime minister has listened. Three senior Tories sacked on Wednesday came bottom of an approval survey of party members by the website ConservativeHome. Public — and party — opinion matters.
Johnson, his supporters say, wants his government to achieve things before an election in 2023 or 2024. That means a bigger role for Michael Gove, now housing secretary and in charge of the levelling-up mission. Gove is seen as a problem-solver, a strange idea for anyone who remembers his part in Britain leaving the EU.
Part of the government’s problem is that while it would like to accept lots of donations from property developers, it also needs to win lots of votes from people who don’t like property developers. Maybe it could find ways to encourage old, rich, Tory voters to sell their homes to young, not-so-rich, non-Tory voters. Gove will surely find this a cinch.
The promotion of Nadhim Zahawi, previously the minister in charge of the successful vaccine rollout, to education secretary is another sign of the government’s desire to define itself by competence. Perhaps it will work. More likely, the Brexit-intensified skills shortages, a resistance to more tax rises or borrowing, and a lack of clear reforms will limit what is achieved.
Given that it’s taken Johnson nearly two years to produce his plan for social care; I don’t fancy many new policies materialising, however good the ministers. Having said that, the government is apparently planning to bring back imperial measures, which means we’ll finally be free to say how many feet home secretary Priti Patel has put in her mouth in each media appearance.
Plenty of bad ministers remain. This is partly a structural issue. There are 136 government jobs to distribute among 363 Tory MPs, many of them has-beens, newbies and oddballs. There are simply not enough talented MPs to go round.
This week is only Johnson’s latest attempt at reinvention. He previously pledged to get a grip on obesity, then vetoed a tax on unhealthy foods. He promised to lead the world on climate, then stalled on climate policies. It is hard for voters to work out when ministers haven’t delivered. It’s much easier to work out when a prime minister has done the same.