After about 100 days in office, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday announced a reshuffle intended to recharge his government. Yet it might ultimately amount to little more than a case of “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic,” and it reverses much of the post-Brexit, “Global Britain” agenda of his predecessors.
The reshuffle, the fifth in about 20 months by successive leaders of the Conservative government, did not actually reassign many Cabinet ministers. Rather it moved around existing members of the prime minister’s top team in what was actually more of a reform of government architecture.
This restructuring of the departmental landscape resulted in the former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy being split into three. It is only the latest change for the department, which was founded in 1861 as the Board of Trade and has undergone many wide-ranging alterations since the 1960s.
The latest restructuring creates three “new” government entities: The Department for Business and Trade, which will be headed by Kemi Badenoch; the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, led by Grant Shapps; and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, led by Michelle Donelan.
The reforms are intended to bring a fresh approach to efforts to deliver on the prime minister’s policy priorities, which include halving inflation and growing the economy. In some respects, however, they represent more of a return to the past. A department devoted to energy, for example, existed between 2008 and 2016, when Theresa May abolished it, and before that from 1974 until 1983.
Overall, the changes effectively recreate the former Department of Trade and Industry, which was previously instituted twice (in 1970 and 1983) by Conservative governments before being split up or refocused by Labour administrations. They also mark the demise of the short-lived Department for International Trade, which was created by May as part of her efforts to deliver a “Global Britain” in the wake of Brexit.
The move does little for ministerial stability within the important business brief. Badenoch is the sixth secretary of state responsible for business since the 2019 election. Renewing — and in some cases rebuilding — relationships with stakeholders and setting new departmental directions all takes time, while the clock ticks toward a general election likely to take place next year.
It is likely that Sunak’s former role as UK finance minister could have played a significant role in his decision to salami-slice the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, after he clashed last year with Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary at the time, over the government’s response to the energy crisis, in the widespread belief that the department was too big to get a grip on the issue.
As much as contrasting personalities, this rivalry reflected the deeper, longstanding tensions between two pillars of government who had often found themselves at odds over how the economy should be managed.
Politically, the key question arising from Sunak’s shuffle is whether it might allow him to make unexpected strides before the next general election. It is highly unlikely this will be the case.
For one thing, redrawing the political landscape of the UK in such a way often leads to “turf wars,” uncertainty among staff and the creation of new working practices that tend to delay rather than accelerate change in the short term. It is estimated by some that new information technology and human resources systems might not be fully operational until 2025.
Moreover, even if Sunak is proven right and his changes turn out to be a route to longer-term growth, turning the UK into a science and technology superpower is not a natural campaigning issue. He will therefore struggle to make this issue resonate with the electorate.
Another looming headache for the prime minister is that while the reshuffle might provide him with some political breathing space to once again focus on his main priorities, following the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi as a Cabinet minister, another threat looms large in the form of the investigation into Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab. Pressure is building over allegations of bullying by him that could boil over in the spring.
Raab continues to head the Ministry of Justice, as Sunak wants to follow due process while the minister, who insists he is innocent of all the accusations, is under investigation. The challenge for the government is that should Raab eventually be forced to resign or be sacked, there will need to be another mini-reshuffle in the next few weeks, which would lead some Conservatives to question why Sunak did not wait to find this out rather than have to go through two periods of Cabinet-level change in short order.