Boris Johnson has begun a mini reshuffle of his ministerial team, moving Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ardent Leaver, to the role of minister for Brexit opportunities.
Rees-Mogg was heavily criticized in his previous job as Leader of the House of Commons for his role in the Owen Paterson sleaze scandal.
Rees-Mogg admitted he supported collapsing the House of Commons standards rules to try to help Paterson in a corruption scandal. The episode ended in a damaging government retreat the next day.
However, Rees-Mogg has remained loyal to the UK prime minister and that has been repaid; he will retain his position in the cabinet in his new job, seeking out opportunities following Brexit as well as government efficiency savings.
Johnson has been criticized for failing to be bold enough in deregulating parts of the British economy once the UK left the EU. Rees-Mogg, a passionate Leaver, will now be given the challenge of turning Brexit rhetoric into reality.
The mini-reshuffle, taking place over Tuesday lunchtime, is expected to involve an overhaul of the whips’ office, as Johnson seeks to restore party discipline after weeks of unrest among MPs.
Mark Spencer, chief whip, will move into the slot vacated by Rees-Mogg and will become Leader of the House of Commons, in charge of parliamentary business. He will also have a seat at the cabinet table.
Stuart Andrew, deputy chief whip, has been moved to Michael Gove’s leveling-up department as a minister of state, in a sign that the prime minister wants a big clear out of the whips’ office.
At the end of last year some Conservative MPs claimed that party discipline, enforced by the whips, had “broken down” and that the UK prime minister was effectively “flying blind” when trying to work out what his MPs were thinking or doing.
The Paterson affair, in which the whips were heavily implicated, was a searing episode in which reluctant Tory MPs were told to vote for the collapse of House of Commons standards rules, only for the policy to be abandoned.
In December the whips completely miscalculated the scale of a Tory rebellion over Covid-19 restrictions, with almost 100 Tory MPs voting against the government.
Johnson will need a revamped whipping operation – with reliable intelligence gathering capabilities – if he is to contain an uprising by Tory MPs against his leadership.
The task of overhauling the whipping operation will fall to Chris Heaton-Harris, a Brexiter and former MEP, who has been helping to run a “shadow whipping operation” in recent days to prop up the prime minister.
Currently Europe Minister at the Foreign Office, Heaton-Harris’s appointment will be welcomed by Tory Eurosceptics. Before entering politics he worked for his family’s business at New Covent Garden market in London.
In 2017 he wrote to the vice-chancellors of every university in the UK, requesting information on academics lecturing on Brexit and the subject material they were using; some claimed he was infringing on academic freedom.