Boris Johnson should reshuffle Conservative Cabinet to bring back big beasts like Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt – Murdo Fraser MSP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Cabinet has done what it was designed to do – deliver Brexit and steady the ship.

Theresa May and Boris Johnson are seen during a UK-France summit in January 2018, when she was Prime Minister and he was Foreign Secretary (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA pool/Getty Images)
Theresa May and Boris Johnson are seen during a UK-France summit in January 2018, when she was Prime Minister and he was Foreign Secretary (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/WPA pool/Getty Images)

That has been no mean feat considering the trials of the Covid pandemic at its height. Now the Cabinet could do with being refreshed to face the tasks ahead and to bring new enthusiasm to Johnson’s leadership.

Scuttlebutt around Westminster suggest that the PM’s inner circle has a preference for putting a re-shuffle off until January. It is argued that the Prime Minister, who loves to be loved, prefers to avoid confrontation.

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There are, however, a number of former Tory MPs who had the whip removed from them for their opposition to Brexit who might beg to differ. They still bear the scars of opposition, and are now former MPs.

A re-shuffle should be in the hands of a Prime Minister and not a note in the diary. The timing, however, needs to be precise and that requires careful calibration.

To have strength, it cannot be interpreted as a response to debacle going on in Afghanistan. To have meaningful freshness, it needs to be sufficiently in advance of the Tory Party conference in October to give new Cabinet members the time to have new agendas to outline.

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There is not necessity for a re-shuffle but there are advantages for the Prime Minister. He has a lot of ability and experience on his backbenches but a wealth of talent can turn to sourness if neglected too long. There is also a number of backbenchers, some of the new intake and others of longer tooth, who are openly wondering what Britain’s role in the world is after the events in Kabul, who could do with knowing that there is a career path open to them.

For a Prime Minister who is criticised in some parts for being too lightweight, adding ballast to his Cabinet should be the first priority. Jeremy Hunt was the UK’s longest serving Health Secretary who conducted a clean campaign against Johnson for the leadership, and since refusing to serve if not retained in the Foreign Office, he has been dignified on the backbenches and in committee.

His loyalty and talent would be a benefit to the top level of the administration and his ambition should not be allowed to rot.

Similarly, Theresa May was the longest serving Home Secretary in more than 60 years. Although she could be accused of becoming butter fingers in Number 10, both she and Mr Hunt have a track record of being safe pairs of hands in difficult departments.

Mrs May might have been stinging in her forensic analysis of Mr Johnson’s Afghanistan policy in the emergency debate in the Commons last week but she was not needlessly damaging as she could have been. Her experience of good times and bad could add a depth to the Cabinet and to her colleagues.

The return of Sajid Javid to the Cabinet as Health Secretary after his acrimonious departure from the Treasury shows that even at the highest level this administration is prepared to allow bygones to be bygones. But there is also future talent which deserves to be recognised and again there are dangers in not doing so.

Sadly, Rory Stewart’s unparalleled expertise on Afghanistan has been lost to Parliament now he is no longer a MP. But there are others whose contribution would be valuable.

Tom Tugendhat has not been afraid to criticise his own frontbench and his words in the recent debate will have reassured many veterans and members of the public that their voice is heard and can be expressed in Parliament. Similarly, Tobias Ellwood spoke out about the Afghan situation without the danger of merely being labelled outspoken.

The journey from reasoned criticism to outright attack from government backbenchers can often be measured in dashed ambitions. To gentrify President Lyndon B Johnson’s dictum, it is more convenient to have figures like this within the tent of government than to have them use the tent, externally, as a convenience.

Boris Johnson has been firm with disloyalty but more amenable to some of his former critics. My old colleague, former Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, made it clear that he didn’t want Boris as leader and paid the price with his job, but has now been appointed as a trade envoy to New Zealand.

The challenges of re-building – and ‘levelling up’ – post-pandemic Britain will be great, and the impetus of a new, re-cast team at the top of government would send the right signals and offer the policy initiative to indicate that Prime Minister Johnson was up for the challenge.

The fact that he prefers to stand by colleagues when they are in trouble indicates a Prime Minister who will not be buffeted by events or bullied by the media which is a positive.

But he cannot allow that to be countered by negative suggestions he is frightened to move. A re-shuffle in the shorter term can bring him and the government benefits. Delay can look like indecision close to indifference.

There is a tale told of one new Prime Minister asking his predecessor for advice as he took over office. The outgoing PM explains he has written down all his advice and put it in three buff envelopes in a desk at Number 10.

As the first storm hits the new Government, the incoming PM opens the first envelope and is advised to blame everything on his predecessor. He does so and the squall passes.

At the second crisis, he opens the second letter and reads an instruction to re-shuffle his Cabinet. He does so, and survives it.

At the third instance of difficulties, he opens the third message which reads: “Prepare three buff envelopes.”

If Johnson re-shuffles now – and properly – he might avoid the buff stationery for many years to come.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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