Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle was more comprehensive than many at Westminster expected and more brutal in its treatment of ministers who have been loyal to him. But the prime minister is still surrounded mostly by ministerial mediocrities and the latest moves will not be enough to give his government a clear purpose after Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.
The biggest loser was Dominic Raab, the humiliation of whose demotion from foreign secretary to justice secretary was amplified, if anything, by his success in persuading Johnson to name him deputy prime minister. If being vice-president is, as John Nance Garner’s words “not worth a bucket of warm spit”, the constitutionally empty title of deputy prime minister is a public declaration of its holder’s political failure.
Incoming foreign secretary Liz Truss is a former Remainer who has become the cabinet’s most ardent champion of the opportunities of Brexit, real or imagined. Hugely popular among the Conservative party membership, her cheerful energy will be welcome at the foreign office where diplomats despaired of Raab’s gloomy, micro-managing style.
Truss’s hawkish approach to China will reinforce hardliners in Downing Street who want to use a pivot to the Indo-Pacific to show that Britain remains an important defence player despite the performance of its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The most interesting move is Michael Gove’s from the cabinet office to the housing and communities ministry with responsibility for local government. Gove will remain in charge of the government’s policy on the Union and gains a new role running Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda.
The appointment demonstrates how Gove, despite his betrayal of Johnson during the 2016 Conservative leadership election, remains the most indispensable figure in government. But it also highlights the lack of talent around the cabinet table and in the junior ministerial ranks that has made it necessary for one minister to take on so many crucial roles.
Johnson shied away from moving Priti Patel, who has managed to be both authoritarian and utterly ineffective as home secretary. And he missed an opportunity by leaving Brandon Lewis in place as Northern Ireland Secretary, a role in which he is woefully miscast.
What the reshuffle has exposed most of all is the fact that the cabinet’s biggest problem is not the weakness of many ministers, which is incontestable, but the emptiness where the prime minister’s vision for Britain after Brexit ought to be, which may be irredeemable.