After warning his internal opponents that the party must “unite or die”, the new Prime Minister appointed key allies of his predecessor, Liz Truss, and his former boss and fierce rival, Boris Johnson. Pivotal figures among his own supporters were also rewarded in a cabinet reshuffle.
Mr Sunak was also set to call Nicola Sturgeon last night, as one of his first early actions as Prime Minister in stark comparison to Ms Truss who went her entire premiership without contacting the First Minister. Alister Jack, appointed the Scotland Secretary under Boris Johnson, retained his role.
The reshuffle came after Mr Sunak took to the steps of Number 10 pledging to “fix” the mistakes of Truss, adding that the country faces a “profound economic crisis”. His speech also attempted to start the process of distancing himself and his cabinet from the reputational damage of the Johnson premiership and the economic mismanagement of the Truss government. As part of the process, ten cabinet ministers were shown the door including senior Truss backers business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg and justice secretary Brandon Lewis. Education secretary, Kit Malthouse, levelling-up secretary, Simon Clarke, and work and pensions secretary Chloe Smith were also sacked to make space for preferred figures across government.
Suella Braverman, who resigned as Home Secretary following a breach of the ministerial code due to a security breach in one of the most dramatic final moments of Truss’ premiership, was returned to her post by Sunak. The move will be widely seen as an olive branch to the right of the party after reports suggested the Truss and Braverman relationship had irreparably broken down following a blazing row over immigration rules potentially being weakened to help achieve growth targets. Braverman later swung behind Sunak during the expedited leadership contest and was a key endorsement, helping to dent the momentum of Boris Johnson’s renaissance campaign.
Benefactors receiving some of the top jobs included several long-time Sunak supporters. Dominic Raab returned to the roles he served under Boris Johnson in justice and as deputy prime minister while Oliver Dowden, who resigned as party chairman following two by-election defeats under Johnson, was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Michael Gove, sensationally sacked by Johnson in the dying days of his premiership, made his own unlikely return to frontline politics. He returned to his old job of Levelling-Up Secretary, and will be a central figure in the UK Government’s fight to hold the union together having also taken on responsibility for inter-governmental relations. Mel Stride, Sunak’s campaign manager, was also rewarded with the Work and Pensions Secretary role.
Penny Mordaunt, who pulled out of the leadership contest at the last moment as it became clear she did not have the numbers to take on Mr Sunak, was reappointed the leader of the House of Commons, the role she held under Truss. Other leadership contenders over the summer also joined the cabinet table, with Kemi Badenoch staying as trade secretary.
At least eight of Liz Truss’ cabinet retained their place, including the Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, and culture secretary Michelle Donelan. Mr Jack’s re-appointment was viewed as an endorsement by Sunak of his strategy within the Scotland Office which has seen support for independence stall at just below 50 per cent. The MP for Dumfries and Galloway, who is now serving his third different Prime Minister in the role, said: “We need to bring stability to our economy and our public finances, deliver long term prosperity for everyone in our country, and continue to sustain and strengthen the Union.”
Prior to the reshuffle in his speech outside the steps to Number 10, the new Prime Minister pledged to “fix” the mistakes of his predecessors. Warning the public that the country faces a “profound economic crisis”, Mr Sunak moved to assure people that work would start “immediately”.
He also moved to remind the public of what made him so popular during the pandemic, highlighting the furlough scheme and what he described as the “compassion” showed by government during the lockdowns. This time, amid the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, would always have “limits”, but he committed to bring “that same compassion to the challenges we face today”.
Delivered in a serious, solemn manner, Sunak attempted to draw a line in the sand between him and Johnson and Truss. He made a thinly veiled attack on both, pledging to lead with “integrity, professionalism, and accountability”. He also warned of “difficult decisions to make” on the road towards “economic stability and confidence”. On Monday, his Chancellor will set out what could be close to £40bn worth of public service cuts.
Dismissing calls for a general election as demanded by opposition parties, Mr Sunak said he believed the 2019 general election victory for the Conservatives provided a mandate for him as well as Boris Johnson. Many of the former Prime Minister’s supporters spent much of last week claiming Mr Johnson was the only person within the party with a mandate, with former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg claiming an election was needed if Johnson didn’t return to Number 10.
Mr Sunak, in a move to limit that criticism from within his own party, claimed Johnson would agree the “mandate we won is a mandate that belongs to and unites all of us”, pledging to enact the 2019 manifesto in government.
Sir Keir Starmer, at a meeting of the shadow cabinet on Tuesday, told MPs the new Prime Minister was “ruthless”, adding: “Rishi Sunak stabbed Boris Johnson in the back when he thought he could get his job. And in the same way, he will now try and disown the Tory record of recent years and recent months and pretend that he is a new broom.”
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, confirmed he had been phoned by Sunak in the afternoon, prior to Sturgeon. He welcomed Sunak’s formal appointment as Prime Minister, praising his speech as avoiding sugar-coating the “tough decisions” which lie ahead, adding Sunak was a “serious leader for serious times”.
He said: “But the country – like the financial markets – can be reassured that our new Prime Minister is uniquely qualified and will work day and night to steer Scotland and the UK through this period.
“Rishi is a tried and tested leader in turbulent economic times and he made it clear he will approach the current economic challenges with the same compassion that we saw from him during the pandemic.