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Cabinet shifts are best viewed as information. Apart from the removal of ministers who have become political accountants, it also indicates the issues that bother Downing Street the most.
Seen this way Boris Johnson’s allegations provides two important clues to the state of mind of Downing Street. The first is that he recognizes the need to make a slogan a thorough plan of action from a slogan. And the second is that he needs to rebuild some bridges with his party.
While other changes may bring more news, the most important step is the appointment of Michael Gove as community and housing secretary, with a specific focus on setting the agenda. No matter what criticism is made of Gove’s policies, Johnson is seen by Johnson as an effective and powerful minister who is more likely than most to turn what has hitherto been a vague slogan into a detailed strategy. Gove has become Johnson’s minister for major strategic challenges and his appointment indicates the prime minister’s concern that the high expectations he has raised should turn into visible delivery.
Gove now also takes responsibility for planning reform, a problem that exists Furious Tory LPs and expressed concern about the alienation of southern voters. The first step in this regard was identified with former strategist Dominic Cummings, who caused a parliamentary setback with the idea of a centrally designed algorithm dominating local concerns. Gove’s job is to find ways to meet the government’s commitment to house building without losing the backbench. By retaining responsibility for the Union, Gove now faces some of the government’s most difficult challenges.
Elsewhere, the theme is the simpler replacement of burdens with more effective ministers. After a hopeless period in education, Gavin Williamson was apparently a dead man walking. Robert Jenrick, Gove’s predecessor, was not only affected by a scandal over a Tory donor, but also carried the can for the flawed planning reform. Dominic Raab has lost support even before his mismanagement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it sealed his fate. He remains in the cabinet in the lesser role of justice secretary with the fig tree of his appointment in the meaningless role of deputy prime minister.
Of the ministers who are generally thrown for the sack, only Priti Patel, the secretary of the house, survives, in part because much of the vitriol directed at her comes from outside the party rather than from within.
Others went, especially because their time was up. Amanda Milling was incompetent as Tory chairman and could not provide the by-election of Chesham and Amersham. Chancellor Robert Buckland did not have such black marks, but was steady and facilitated the Raab move.
Finally, Johnson has advanced party fans, of course Liz Truss, the new Secretary of State, who has been at the top of the Conservative House’s poll for months among the top rated ministers. She impressed Johnson with her enthusiastic pursuit of trade agreements and is valued by activists as one of the few in the cabinet who are still ready to fight for ideals in the free market. Truss, a devoted Atlantis and a hawk from China, will help build bridges in Washington, while her time as trade secretary has given her a diplomatic foundation.
Nadine Dorries, the new cultural secretary and an early supporter of Johnson, will also delight activists as a likely enthusiastic attacker of metropolitan media and pursuit of cultural wars. Oliver Dowden’s move from culture to party chairman is a sign that Johnson needs the party organization to suspend.
Finally there is the dog who did not bark. To no one’s surprise, the threats against Chancellor Rishi Sunak came to nothing. The prime minister may be suspicious his ambitious neighbor but his focus is on improving competence and delivering the parts of his government that do not work, not the parts that work.