By Angus M
The last two months have been a turbulent time for British politics. The public has seen three different Conservative Prime Ministers, within the same government, and has experienced a litany of cabinet changes, along with policy U-turns and a significant economic shock. I thought it interesting to explore the changes within the cabinet over this period, and the challenges that have presented themselves. The following changes to the cabinet by Sunak have brought even more chaos, with huge U-turns from Truss’ government on the allocation of ministerial positions causing a huge lack of continuity within the British Government.
49 days – only 7 weeks. Elizabeth Truss was the British Prime Minister with the shortest time in office, breaking the previous record set by George Canning of 119 days in 1827, whose term ended upon his death. This term contained a major and minor cabinet reshuffle, and an attempt at changing the direction of the Conservative government that was swiftly followed by a direct U-turn and then her resignation of the premiership. This uncertainty not only led to a short economic disaster, with markets losing confidence in the Government’s ability to control the economy and therefore contributing further to the economic hardship faced by many in the UK through interest rate rises and a reduced purchasing power of the pound, but it also led to a great loss of credibility in the UK government as a whole. The loss of stability was not a surprise, however, as there was little continuity in cabinet positions as Truss took over. Of the twenty-three permanent cabinet positions (including the Prime Minister), only four remained the same. Rishi Sunak, having waited in the wings, observing the economic chaos of the neo-Thatcherite policies of Truss and her new government that he warned about in party hustings, was rushed into power after Truss’ shock resignation on Thursday 20th October. This followed a hurried and curtailed leadership contest that resulted in only him reaching the required threshold of supporter MPs, with his installation into power therefore not required to be voted on by party members.
Exploring the cabinet further, Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, was the most senior minister to remain in post under Truss, and he remains under Sunak. Given that he backed Truss early, and didn’t stand in either race, it was not a surprise that he remained. It was clear that he chose the defensive concerns of the nation over his own political ambitions – and he remains looking rather good by staying in post and keeping his relationships with other international players in defence. Other senior ministers to remain under Sunak include the new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt and James Cleverley as Foreign Secretary. It is essential to have some continuity here, given the precarious international circumstances not just in Wallace’s realm of defence, but also in energy, international trade and foreign aid.
Furthermore, Truss’ decisions to keep the Scottish and Welsh Secretaries of State seemed sensible given the current imperative to maintain open and positive dialogue between the four nations of the United Kingdom with ever growing nationalist movements. The Conservative and Unionist party has the union at its heart, and so keeping politicians who have established relationships around the union in post appears vital to keeping it intact. Sunak also saw the logic in this continuity, and has kept Alistair Jack (Scotland, a relatively long serving minister) in post, along with the Northern Irish secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, but he has replaced the Welsh secretary of state. Continuity was also found in Kemi Badenoch (Trade), Michelle Donelan (Culture), and Tom Tugendhat (Minister of State attending cabinet for Security). More importantly than this, however, was the retention of Mordaunt and True as leaders of the Houses of Commons and Lords respectively. This move attempts to maintain some stability in the party and also keep the right-wing support from MPs through Mordaunt especially. In addition, keeping Alok Sharma as COP26 secretary was sensible from Truss given his key role in the conference, good standing with other members, and strong knowledge of the intricate and complex agreements, but given COP27’s imminence Sunak saw fit to remove this post from the cabinet. As such, Sharma now finds himself on the backbenches again. On a related note, Sunak did indeed attend COP27, the official line being that this decision was taken after some ‘last minute schedule changes’.
The contrast between Truss and Sunak’s cabinets is also significant. It appeared that Truss wished to pivot the Conservative party to the right. High profile Brexiteers were brought in, who also tended to have more right-wing views. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than her appointment of Jacob Rees-Mogg as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industry, a man who believes strongly in an independent Britain and in deregulation. He has recently made a name for himself by trying to push a bill through Parliament that automatically axes all existing EU legislation at the end of 2023 if it hasn’t been retained in a separate act. Furthermore, she appointed other ministers, like Suella Braverman and Thérèse Coffey, who have been strong allies and friends throughout the contest and their time in Parliament together. Braverman looked to strengthen migration policy and is aiming to toughen up the government’s stance on ‘common sense law and order’ while Coffey was considering cuts to services to balance health and care budgets and cutting state support for individual welfare claimants. These are all typical policies of the-right wing of the Tory Party; however, they didn’t seem to go down well with the broader party. As such, Sunak installed some more moderate Conservatives, attempting to continue to capture the centre while keeping some right-wing support, and removing many of those who Truss appointed. Dominic Raab was reinstalled as Deputy PM, resuming his role as Justice Secretary, and some other relatively centrist Sunak supporters were brought into cabinet in some of the more junior departments. Interestingly also, Michael Gove has yet again made it into the cabinet, and much speculation has been made about his exact role and whether he’ll be used not only as Levelling Up Secretary but also to use some of the ‘dark arts’ mentioned in connection to him both when he was working with Dominic Cummings in Education and later when he was in the Cabinet Office.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Truss made a bold choice of Chancellor, in a bid to return to the Thatcherite conservatism of tax cuts, deregulation and a trickle-down economic theory. A new economic plan was drawn up between Kwasi Kwarteng and Truss, often in secret meetings, which would have brought the abolition of additional rate tax, a cut in the basic tax rate, and a reversal of the planned National Insurance and Corporation tax hikes. Furthermore, there were plans to deregulate laws around the banking industry and bonuses to attempt to attract new business to the city. However, with a rushed release of the plan, and a failure to get an Office for Budget Responsibility report, in conjunction with the turmoil of the cabinet reshuffle and new Prime Minister, the markets reacted with a loss of confidence, resulting in Government Bonds and the value of the pound tanking. As the pound lost value, this added to the cost-of-living crisis and inflation, requiring the Bank of England to prop up gilts and to raise interest rates multiple times. The turmoil created by this Thatcherite mini-budget resulted in public uproar, claiming that the concept of trickle-down economics was out of touch with today’s climate, and so under pressure, some of the policies such as the additional rate tax abolition were reversed, and eventually Kwarteng was forced to step down – many would say in order to save Truss’ premiership. Jeremy Hunt was installed as Chancellor, and other tax cuts were reversed, but even with Truss’ strong façade in her press conferences, she too was soon forced to resign. Jeremy Hunt was brought in for her final days of office, and Sunak has elected to keep him, with the pair releasing an Autumn Statement that looks to return the party to its reputation as the party of fiscal responsibility and sound decision making.
Liz Truss, in her 49 days in office, was responsible in the most part for two sets of cabinet substitutions that caused great uncertainty and a lack of confidence in the government, and which added fuel to an already growing economic fire. Her cabinet pulled the party to the right, but cost her many other MPs’ support, as was shown by the shambolic fracking vote that showed huge fissures within the Conservative Party on Wednesday 19th October. Turbulent times, and a difficult job to begin with, led her to preside over perhaps some of the darkest political days for the Conservative Party of the 21st Century. Since his appointment on the 25th October, Sunak has taken the party back in a more conventional direction, and the whole country, regardless of affiliation, hopes that this returns some respectability and stability to the United Kingdom’s government and in turn its markets and economy.