Will this reshuffle make a scrap of difference? Of course not. The most damaged of the prime minister’s dented shields of inadequates are out, to be replaced mainly with other willing obedients.
This noisy grinding of the gears signals no new direction or intention. Nadine Dorries as culture secretary? Read her books. God help the Brexit- and budget-stricken arts and broadcasting, but she’s the epitome of Boris Johnson’s habit of hiring those he regards as his inferiors.
Riskiest is the promotion of Liz Truss, whose vaulting ambition and ideological extremism has placed her top of Conservative Home’s league table among party members, the darling of the conference fringe. Now Rishi Sunak has a rival as heir apparent, which may be Boris Johnson’s intent. Moving Michael Gove to the housing and communities department is a nifty shift: he will have to define the amorphous blob that is “levelling up”, and he will be taking the rap when there is no equalising done, as Sunak’s austerity budget bites hard.
Life at the top in politics is usually nasty, brutish and short. Reshuffles are ruthless. “They’re all in it for themselves,” a largely contemptuous public tells pollsters, worshipping democracy but despising its practitioners. Few professions offer such a difficult ascent, relatively small rewards and rapid public tumbles down the greasy pole. Why do it?
Politicians I respect do want to make society better – though there are none I can spot in this cabinet, which cravenly tolerates the whims of this prime minister, signing up to unconscionable things. Look, they did it again today – refusing to vote down that pernicious £20 cut in universal credit, knowing the damage they inflict on already poor children.
The hapless Gavin Williamson makes a pitiful spectacle as he exits after unceasing bullying, the fall guy as policy swerves beyond his power caused children to yo-yo in and out of school lockdowns. It was the Treasury that slashed the money the catch-up tsar Kevan Collins needed for pupils hit hard by the pandemic. Williamson’s attempt at making himself a “character”, with a tarantula on his desk during his earlier days as chief whip, was sadly pathetic. Let’s see what Nadhim Zahawi can do with schools still funded below 2010 levels.
Dominic Raab is demoted, but not gone – keeping his empty “deputy prime minister” title just to prevent any putative heirs with more influence, charm or talent presuming to it. His punishment for beach-lounging while Afghan troops fled is to inherit the least desirable properties in Britain, the prison estate in all its dilapidations and with a quarter of prison officers lost.
The man to blame was always the prime minister for surrounding himself with the least threatening creatures who could never outshine him. Robert Jenrick should have been fired long ago. But he was doing his master’s business in helping ex-pornographer Richard Desmond avoid paying £45m in tax to poor Tower Hamlets, later donating to Tory party funds. Instead, Jenrick takes the drop for libertarian planning laws that were at the heart of Johnson’s plans, but which are now in full retreat after a home counties revolt in the Chesham byelection.
As for Robert Buckland, he was willing enough to go after the judges over curbing citizens’ judicial-review rights, only slightly softening Johnson’s undemocratic urge. His departing words were these: “I am deeply proud of everything I have achieved.” But he bequeaths to his successor, Raab, tens of thousands queueing for the crown courts, with waiting lists at an all-time high even before the pandemic struck. Half the crown and magistrates courts have been sold off since 2010, with a 34-week wait for an employment tribunal hearing.
Who sits in what chair round the cabinet table really doesn’t matter, when there is no ideological difference between them, no real left and right. By nature they are all small-staters, Europhobes and poverty-deniers, trapped uncomfortably in a big-state pandemic crisis. Meanwhile, the ambitious chancellor will continue trying to rein in a wilful prime minister’s childish taste for playing with tunnels and bridges. The great cabinet court plays on, the king’s whim absolute – until he’s toppled by them, the fate of almost all Tory prime ministers.