LONDON — With one shock hire and one brutal sacking, Rishi Sunak has re-established his Conservative credentials. Just not the type many in his party wanted to see.
On one level, the British prime minister’s dramatic Cabinet reshuffle — executed Monday after a weekend of speculation — made a lot of sense. This was Sunak’s chance to stamp his authority on a ministerial team he partially inherited from his predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and create a unit focused on delivering his own electoral message.
The unexpected appointment of former prime minister David Cameron as foreign secretary was designed to transmit seriousness, with the added bonus of drawing headlines away from Sunak’s decision to sack his firebrand home secretary, Suella Braverman.
In her stead Sunak appointed the calm and affable James Cleverly, who previously held the foreign affairs brief. A number of younger footsoldiers loyal to Sunak received promotions in the ensuing reshuffle.
But with an election looming next year, the strategy laid out by Sunak on Monday betrays a risky change of tack.
Only a few weeks ago the PM was trying to paint himself as the “change” candidate in the election, implicitly criticizing the previous 12 years of Conservative-led governments — including those of Cameron. That approach now appears to have been junked, in favor of more traditional Tory messaging about statesmanship and stability.
Running out of road
In truth, Sunak had little option but to be bold.
His party remains way behind in the polls, and neither a post-summer policy ‘reset’ nor a party conference speech scattered with disconnected policies managed to shift the dial.
Last week’s King’s Speech — which laid out Sunak’s legislative program for the next 12 months — was deemed lackluster, and he has little headroom for spending in next week’s autumn financial statement.
Sunak therefore opted to deploy a attention-grabbing reshuffle as one of the few levers he has left to pull before the next election.
A senior Downing Street official set out two guiding principles behind Monday’s reorganization: “Competence, and a united team focused on what the public want.”
For some parts of the Conservative Party, such a shift is long overdue.
One former Cabinet minister — granted anonymity, like others in this article, to speak frankly about the party’s fortunes — hailed the decision to bring back Cameron as “a masterstroke.” They believed it “will reassure the party and public that the Conservatives are serious about governing and winning.”
Similarly, Cleverly’s arrival at the Home Office and the demotion of Health Secretary Steve Barclay — seen as antagonistic in dealings with striking doctors — are both designed to steady the ship.
“Suella [Braverman] has been a problem,” said one Conservative candidate in a seat in northern England. “Cleverly will calm down the Home Office insanity and make it look as though we’re running a semi-competent government.”
Luke Tryl, director of the More in Common think tank, concludes the effect could be significant in more liberally-minded constituencies where Conservatives are under pressure from the Liberal Democrats, areas sometimes referred to as the Blue Wall.
“[Those voters] will feel quite reassured to have someone like David Cameron back,” Tryl said, “but also by Cleverly, who is far more of a team player than Braverman, even though they share some of the same views.”
Fight on the right
Sunak, however, risks playing into the long-held fears of conservative-minded colleagues that he is less right-wing than they had hoped.
“There’s always been this slight contradiction with Rishi in that his vibe is liberal or centrist,” notes Henry Hill, deputy editor of the Tory grassroots website ConservativeHome. “His actual views are quite right-wing.”
The Tory PM has tried to temper such fears by promoting Richard Holden, a punchy campaigner in a Red Wall seat, and Esther McVey, another high-profile MP from the north of England who is happy to lean into the culture wars.
The risk for Sunak is that neither wing of his divided party — nor either half of his fragile voter coalition — will be convinced.
A former No. 10 aide on the right of the party asked: “Do I right now have confidence that this is a party which will take a strong stance on things I care about? No.”
One blue-collar Conservative said his views on Sunak’s reshuffle were “unprintable.”
And a second former Cabinet minister warned that if Sunak’s electoral calculation is to shore up Blue Wall votes, it may anyway be too late. “That horse hasn’t so much bolted, as died,” they said.
One Tory strategist warned the reshuffle could see Sunak lose further vote share to the upstart Reform party on the Tories’ right flank, which is currently polling at about 8 percent.
“If it increases then this will look like a very bad move,” they noted. “That number can flip a lot of Tory seats.”
The promotion of Holden — a former special adviser, or spad — and others ex-staffers like him have also drawn criticism from some of the Tory party’s older hands.
The ex-No. 10 aide quoted above described the new-look government as a “spad-ocracy,” adding: “I can see they’re trying to get fresh faces in, but it is a bit of a slap in the face to the rest of the parliamentary party.”
Given Monday also saw a mass exodus of experienced and respected middle-ranking office holders such as Science Minister George Freeman, some fear the PM’s “competence” narrative has already been undermined.
There were internal protests too over the sacking of Rachel Maclean as housing minister — a role which has now been held by 16 different people in the last 13 years.
For its part, the opposition Labour Party was gleeful about Sunak’s decision to abandon the “change” candidate narrative he recently embarked upon by rolling back the HS2 rail project and certain net zero measures.
“It’s a gift to us,” one Labour strategist said. “He said he was changing the consensus. [But Cameron] is the man who started the 13-year Tory consensus in the first place.”
Sunak must now pin his hopes on a slowly-improving economy and the ability to demonstrate competence after the chaos of Johnson and Truss, says More In Common’s Tryl.
”The truth is it’s a real long shot,” Tryl added. “But in a bad hand, that is the card they’ve got to play.”