Sajid Javid and Hilary Benn.
John Rentoul, The Independent
Reshuffle speculation may seem like a pointless branch of political commentary. It is just gossip, isn’t it? And it is usually wrong. Yet it is the stuff of politics. It matters who is in which job, in government and in opposition.
The endless rating of who is up and who is down may seem a distraction, but it is a constant attempt to describe the structure of government now and how it may change in the future. This is not trivia, it is deep political analysis.
One thing that has struck me in recent conversations in and around Westminster is that both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer are accused of surrounding themselves with weak teams. The exception to the rule is Rishi Sunak, but he was appointed precisely because Johnson thought he would be more biddable than Sajid Javid. That he has turned out to be the most popular politician in the country, with immense authority in his own right and a self-promotion machine to match, was not part of the calculation last year. Javid, who was a capable minister, has been kept out. Jeremy Hunt stays on the back benches. Johnson refuses to give Michael Gove a proper job, either because he would be a threat, or because Johnson wants to punish him for the Great Betrayal of 2016 — when Gove, Johnson’s principal supporter, announced his own bid for the Conservative leadership hours before Johnson was going to announce his. Perhaps it is understandable that Johnson should be suspicious of rival leadership candidates, but it means that the government does not have its strongest performers in the right jobs. Certainly not as long as Gavin Williamson is still education secretary.
Instead, Johnson has promoted one of his advisers to the cabinet via the House of Lords. The prime minister obviously thinks highly of David Frost: he was made a full member of the cabinet after he threatened to resign. (He intended to leave Downing Street at the same time as Oliver “Sonic” Lewis, who was his deputy as Brexit trade negotiator.) The appointment was so untidy that the cabinet page of the government’s website still doesn’t have Lord Frost’s photo on it, 12 days later. Frost is a special case, in that opinions about his ability differ sharply between Remainers and Leavers, and that part of Johnson’s calculation seems to be that he wants someone less emollient than Gove as his cabinet minister for keeping Brexit in the headlines to the Tory party’s advantage. Even so, one of Frost’s features is that he has no ambitions to be prime minister himself.
The overall effect is that Johnson is not fielding the strongest team available to him — which might matter more if the same could not be said of the opposition. When Starmer appointed his shadow cabinet he, like Johnson, wanted to break from his party’s past. Hence Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn were left on the back benches and forceful performers such as Emily Thornberry parked in relatively junior roles. Most of the reminders of the Corbyn era have excluded themselves from the front bench, including John McDonnell, the only one with any actual ability.
And yet one of the reminders of the Ed Miliband era, Miliband himself, is in the shadow cabinet. Is that because, having been leader already, he is not a threat to Starmer?
These are deep waters, and they are muddied by a complaint that is as old as history: that today’s leaders are no match for the greats of yesteryear. Maybe Johnson and Starmer do not deliberately appoint weak teams; maybe they just have weak fields from which to select. I find it hard to resist this conclusion, especially when surveying the Labour benches — but I must force myself to accept that part of this is my Blairite bias and my admiration for the many good ministers who served in the New Labour period. Perhaps cabinets and shadow cabinets have always been of variable quality, some better than others but with no historical trend. Perhaps the most able ministers and shadow ministers are rarely all included, or put in the most effective positions, because leaders have to play political games, including looking after their own survival.