The secrets of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle were kept on a portable whiteboard, wheeled into the Prime Minister’s office on a trolley and pointed discreetly towards his corner desk, where aides thrashed out various sackings and promotions.
By the middle of Wednesday morning, hours before the first announcements were made, many of the moves were still in flux. But one key role had been set in stone – Liz Truss’s promotion to the Foreign Office in place of a seething Dominic Raab.
The latest stage in the rise and rise of Ms Truss has been interpreted by many as a Machiavellian move by Mr Johnson – keeping her out of the way of adoring local party associations and ‘setting her up to fail’ by handing her over to the hostile forces of the pro-EU mandarinate at the Foreign Office.
Liz Truss, pictured arriving on Friday in Downing Street is the Tory Party’s first female Foreign Secretary, wants to use her role to mould her vision of post-Brexit Britain
PM Boris Johnson demoted Dominic Rabb, but made him Deputy Prime Minister to soften the blow of losing one of the four big offices of state
These bullets are, as usual, bouncing off Ms Truss, who professes herself delighted by a portfolio that she believes gives her the perfect platform to mould her vision of post-Brexit Britain.
The Tory Party’s first female Foreign Secretary is understood privately to share the dissatisfaction of backbenchers, who complain that the reality of the UK’s departure from the EU falls short of the buccaneering picture portrayed by its architects.
Instead of witnessing Britain’s transformation into a low-tax, low-regulation ‘Singapore on Thames’, they have seen the imposition of a new £12 billion annual levy to fund health and social care, been told to prepare for a corporation tax hike from 19 per cent to 25 per cent by 2023 and grown restive over the speed at which EU red tape has been cut.
Ms Truss is also impatient to ‘reclaim Brexit’ with Britain becoming an incentivising hub on the edge of Europe which could beat France and Germany in the battle for billions in international investment through low taxes and the removal of Brussels’s regulatory shackles.
As one ally puts it: ‘Liz wants to focus more on what she calls “economic diplomacy”, with Britain being more competitive in the global marketplace and promoting free enterprise across the world.’
Some senior Government figures are concerned by her promotion, however, with one source saying: ‘Liz will need a strong team around her. The Foreign Office civil servants killed Raab, and they could do the same to her.’
No 10 has kept Ministers on their toes about the reshuffle over the past fortnight, sending out false signals about its imminence.
Even as late as Wednesday morning, some advisers were being dropped hints that it was coming on Friday – although a leak on one WhatsApp group warning the printing of the Cabinet line-up for next month’s Tory Party Conference had been delayed from Tuesday to Thursday was a bit of a giveaway.
Preparations had been under way for several weeks, with the Prime Minister – and former Daily Telegraph columnist – taking what one source described as a ‘journalistic’ approach: ringing round trusted advisers and scribbling down notes as he canvassed opinion.
Central to the process were Dan Rosenfield, No 10’s chief of staff, and Declan Lyons, Mr Johnson’s Political Secretary, who marshalled the views of No 10 advisers and fed them to the Prime Minister.
Inevitably, Michael Gove posed the biggest conundrum – how could he be handed a portfolio commensurate with his skills and experience without disrupting the Cabinet power balance?
The solution – making him Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – is being spun by everyone as a victory: by his allies, because it gives Mr Gove a central role executing the Tories’ flagship ‘levelling up’ policy, and by his enemies because it falls short of being a great office of state. Plus, he will be forced to define what ‘levelling up’ actually means.
He will also have to defuse party tensions over planning reforms and continue his fraught dealings with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over Scottish independence.
Allies of Mr Rosenfield also present it as a ‘wing-clipping’ exercise because it supposedly highlighted the limited reach of a cabal of ‘Goveite’ advisers in No 10.
While the Prime Minister relished the freedom to make changes without the influence – or interference – of former adviser Dominic Cummings, the reshuffle came at a difficult time for him: shortly after the death of his mother.
It meant he was moving, or sacking, people who had just offered their condolences, heightening the emotional temperature further.
At least one sacked Minister left Mr Johnson’s office in tears.
For others, their fears proved unfounded. Home Secretary Priti Patel had grown increasingly concerned that she was going to be ousted by Mr Gove, and had prepared a trenchant defence of her record in Government. Unnecessarily, as it turned out.
A source said: ‘Boris’s relationship with Priti is stronger than people think. This reshuffle was all about cultivating and retaining loyalists.’
Observers are divided about whether Chancellor Rishi Sunak can be counted as one of those. At least one backbencher claims that Mr Sunak privately believes the Health and Social Care levy was a ‘mess’ which he had been ‘bounced into’ – something that the Treasury denies.
The source added: ‘Rishi is doing his typical submarine act, choosing his battles but mostly staying out of trouble. How long can that last?’
Chairman Dowden to be tough like Cecil
New Tory co-chairman Oliver Dowden will restore the post to its power in the Thatcher era, party sources said last night.
They said the former Culture Secretary would be as important in Boris Johnson’s top team as Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit were in Margaret Thatcher’s. The pair chaired the party at key pre-election times during Lady Thatcher’s decade in power.
The move comes after mounting complaints from Tory backbenchers over the party’s performance under previous chairman Amanda Milling, including the shock loss in the Amersham and Chesham by-election.
New Tory co-chairman Oliver Dowden will restore the post to its power in the Thatcher era, party sources said last night
According to reports, Mr Dowden marked his appointment with a rousing speech to staff to ‘prepare for the next election’.
However, critics pointed out that under the party structure, Mr Dowden will still share the chairmanship with well-connected businessman Ben Elliot.
Top economist will help with ‘levelling up’
Boris Johnson’s ambitious levelling-up agenda will be delivered with the help of top economist Andy Haldane.
The former Bank of England’s chief economist will lead a new ‘Levelling Up Taskforce’, jointly established by the Prime Minister and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Minister overseeing the plans. Mr Haldane, who will report jointly to Mr Johnson and Mr Gove, said yesterday: ‘Levelling up is one of the signature challenges of our time.’
The Prime Minister also sought to underscore his commitment to the plans by announcing Mr Gove, who moved last week from the Cabinet Office, as the Secretary of State for Levelling Up.
However, Mr Johnson is still facing criticism that he has yet to define levelling up or give the policy real meaning.
Boris Johnson’s ambitious levelling-up agenda will be delivered with the help of top economist Andy Haldane