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The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s cabinet: new faces, not a new direction

·3 min read

In Westminster it is often said that politics drives the timing of decisions. But this week’s reshuffle by Boris Johnson is just the opposite: the timing is driving the politics. The prime minister is eyeing an early election, which could come as soon as 2023. He wants his party to be energised by new faces before his party conference. Mr Johnson’s changes are not ideological but about ministerial ambitions, accomplishments and personalities. The government he leads will have a new character rather than new direction.

Leaving the cabinet are ministers (Gavin Williamson at education) who were deemed inadequate, replaced by politicians who can point to being successful (vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi). In terms of personalities, Nadine Dorries is a rightwing populist with the culture brief overseeing her bête noire: the BBC. As for personal ambitions, Mr Johnson has elevated a potential successor, Liz Truss, to foreign secretary.

The consensus is that Mr Johnson has tightened his grip. This seems unnecessary. The prime minister’s approval rating is waning but he remains way ahead of Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer. He has a 80-seat majority in parliament. Brexit has ended the great ideological rift in his party. Why would Mr Johnson reassert his authority? The answer perhaps is that a damaging split had threatened to open up inside the cabinet earlier this year between Mr Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak. The prime minister had become so exasperated with his popular colleague that he considered demoting him to health secretary. Mr Sunak stayed in post but two of his allies – Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden – were moved.

If Mr Johnson has a big idea, it is “levelling up” Britain. Yet his government has brought forward little to address regional inequality. Unable to turn his slogan into vote-winning policies that fire up voters, Mr Johnson has made Michael Gove the secretary of state for “levelling up”. With a brief that spans electoral reform, the constitution, English local government and housing, Mr Gove has been made the key Tory election strategist. His job will be to defend a programme that rhetorically is about spatial equality but in reality rewards those who vote Conservative and crushes those who don’t.

For Mr Johnson, making policy is more important than delivering it. He broke a manifesto promise not to raise taxes so the NHS could be funded to bring down waiting lists. He thinks the public will wear this because the money will eventually be diverted to pay for a Dilnot-style social care cap. The Tories first pledged in their 2015 manifesto to introduce similar measures a year later, but having won the election the party shelved the rules designed to prevent older people from having to sell their homes when they go into care.

Mr Johnson looks likely to repeat this ruse by going to the polls before October 2023 when his social care changes are meant to take force. Mr Johnson will ask the public to trust him. Voters should be wary, given his penchant for dissembling. But they might well, given a lacklustre Labour party and a post-Covid recovery. Such conditions would allow the prime minister to claim he is dealing with the great problems of the day even when he’s not. He would, crucially, be able to root voters’ judgments in emotion and intuition rather than facts and evidence. Such a scenario looks, unfortunately, plausible. Britain would be worse off for the triumph of a politics where some of the people are fooled all of the time.

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