I have been reading and listening to a lot of analyses of the cabinet reshuffle. Pretty much all of them seem to me to be wide of the mark.
Commentators, backbenchers and policy analysts all speak as though the detail of policy matters. In the real world, of course it does. But, in the mind of the PM and his top advisors, it hardly matters at all. And that explains a lot.
Trying to read the runes, to work out the direction of travel, to put flesh onto the bones of Johnsonism (or whatever), is likely to be an unsatisfactory exercise.
A power hungry PM?
In the mind of the PM, what matters is the pursuit of power. He is, as I have written several times, single-minded in the pursuit of power, and does all he can to resist constraints on that power. He is not interested in policy, let alone policy detail. I struggle to understand how many seem to think he has any convictions about (eg) Brexit, climate change, levelling up, culture wars, etc
He transparently does not. He doesn’t care one way or another how policy develops. All he cares about is how policy plays with first the Tory Party and its supporters, and second the voters. That helps to explain some of the sackings. Ministers whose stock has fallen with the Party are vulnerable.
The task of new Ministers is not to deliver a particular agenda, but to keep themselves, and the Party, popular.
The real meaning of levelling up?
A good example is levelling up – now ludicrously restyled as levelling up *the whole country*. The task facing Michael Gove, is not to regenerate ‘the North’ or ‘the Red Wall’, but ensure that the Tories maintain support (in key seats) across the whole country.
It doesn’t matter what the outcome is, so long as ‘the North’ is persuaded that the Govt is working for the North, and the South is persuaded that it will not lose its advantages. That won’t make for coherent policy. It won’t be easy. But Michael Gove may have the requisite skill set – telling people what they want to hear, and shamelessly denying the contradictions inherent in the message.
The key things are not policy (which will, in the best traditions of short-termism, shift with public opinion), but instead party management, coupled with management of Parliament, the courts and the media.
The reshuffle is intended to portray energy (working tirelessly, getting on with the job) and renewal. Johnson will revel in the various attempts to formulate an ‘intellectual case’ for his Prime Ministership.
So … All that happened yesterday was the removal of the least popular members of his team.
I see next to no prospect of a change in policy direction… unless (as before) there is a strong enough sense that the popular will is shifting.
(c) Phil Syrpis – 16 September 2021