Sunak’s Restless Tories Are Unimpressed By His Cabinet Changes

Rishi Sunak’s limited cabinet reshuffle on Thursday left his Conservatives doubting the prime minister’s resolve to reset the direction of his party as a general election looms ever closer.

(Bloomberg) — Rishi Sunak’s limited cabinet reshuffle on Thursday left his Conservatives doubting the prime minister’s resolve to reset the direction of his party as a general election looms ever closer.

The premier faces accusations of dithering, with some Tory members of Parliament saying in private that he has presided over a wasted summer. The sense of drift, they said, is only worsened by Thursday’s ministerial changes and many sought a wider cabinet overhaul to show the party is capable of renewal after 13 years in government.

Sunak had hoped that by appointing cabinet veteran Grant Shapps as his new defense secretary it would bolster the UK’s standing ahead of a crucial period for the war in Ukraine. Promoting Claire Coutinho to the cabinet, the first member of the 2019 intake of new lawmakers to get there, was also pitched as a first step to bringing in fresh talent.

At stake are the electoral prospects of the Conservative Party, which have never fully recovered from last year’s chaos that saw Boris Johnson and Liz Truss ousted as prime minister, with the latter serving for just seven weeks. Despite steadying market nerves jangled by Truss’s economic policies, Sunak shows little sign of turning public opinion around, with the Tories trailing Labour by about 20 points in recent polls.

Ever since Ben Wallace announced his intention to step down in July, a Cabinet reshuffle has been inevitable. 

Wallace was widely respected by Britain’s international allies and consistently polled as one of the Tories’ most popular ministers. Yet in Westminster, he’s been at odds with Sunak — particularly on defense spending — both publicly and behind the scenes.

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Shapps is an experienced politician who’s attended the cabinets of four of the past five prime ministers. He is seen in Downing Street as an effective communicator, and also someone who won’t kick up a fuss on spending in the months ahead.  One Tory lawmaker suggested Shapps’ promotion boosted his chances in any post-election leadership contest.

Politically, some of Sunak’s Conservative colleagues are questioning the move, and the government’s wider performance over a summer during which National Health Service waiting lists rose to a record, immigration policies continued to falter and economic data disappointed.

The premier’s aides had previously indicated they would carry out a wider set of cabinet changes in September. The new plan, they say, is for Thursday’s mini shake-up — with Shapps replaced at the energy department by Sunak ultra-loyalist Coutinho — to be followed by a larger set of changes perhaps after party conference season in October.

The risk is that Sunak looks like he doesn’t know what he wants from his top ministerial team, according to ministers and officials who spoke to Bloomberg on condition of anonymity discussing their private views. 

There are questions over the future of Home Secretary Suella Braverman, due to the failure make good on the promise to “stop the boats” carrying migrants across the English Channel, one of Sunak’s five key pledges. 

It had also been expected that Truss ally Therese Coffey, the environment secretary, may be sacked after a row about river pollution. There’s also been criticism of Health Secretary Steve Barclay, who has overseen new record waiting lists in the National Health Service — threatening another of Sunak’s five promises — amid ongoing strikes by doctors.

Those decisions have been deferred. It doesn’t look like Sunak has many ideas about impressive new names who might come in, another Tory aide said. July and August had been largely wasted by the government, they added, with around a year to go until an election. Sunak must call it for January 2025 at the latest, but is expected to choose a date in autumn 2024.

Then there’s the question of electoral strategy. The Tories had identified energy as a possible weak point for Labour, targeting them on net zero and clean air policies, as well as environmental protests. Shapps had been viewed as one of their chief attack dogs leading the charge with punchy rhetoric on those issues. Now he’s been moved to a different beat, replaced by the less overtly combative Coutinho. 

Shapps has now held five different Cabinet jobs in the last year. Britain has had four different ministers in charge of energy in that period, adding to the feeling of drift. 

That’s another reason why some Tories are confused by Thursday’s moves. 

–With assistance from Joe Mayes.

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