After an underwhelming Party Conference season and a tense few days over former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s unauthorised column in The Times, Monday’s reshuffle was a chance for the Conservative Party to turn around its fortunes ahead of the General Election next year. And to some extent, it has delivered. Many in the Party welcomed the return of former Prime Minister David Cameron to the Cabinet and the removal of Braverman, and by some accounts, the Party has even benefitted from a small bump in the polls – with the latest showing that Labour’s lead has narrowed to 16 points.
The day began with the almost unavoidable sacking of Braverman, a decision which did not go down well with the right of the Party, evidenced by the likes of Andrea Jenkyns MP, who immediately submitted her letter of no confidence in Sunak’s leadership. However, snap polling shows that this was broadly considered the right thing to do among the public (57% to 20%), which Sunak will be hoping boosts his approval rating among voters.
Along with this clear shift to the centre-right, in an attempt to bring both sides of his Party together, Sunak has brought Esther McVey back in as ‘Minister for Common Sense’, a tactical decision to placate those on the right who will be feeling disillusioned by Cameron’s return and the simultaneous sacking of Braverman.
In the day’s (and perhaps the year’s!) most shocking move, Sunak’s decision to bring back Cameron indicates a very clear move back to the middle ground for the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party. Sunak will be hoping that Cameron has maintained enough popularity among ‘blue wall’ voters, where the Conservatives are at risk of losing seats to the Liberal Democrats at the next election. But Cameron has also been very vocal when he disagrees with Sunak, recently stressing his discontent with the Prime Minister’s decision over HS2. The former Prime Minister will also likely not be best pleased about Sunak’s criticism of the “last 30 years” in politics during his Party Conference speech.
On the whole, Cameron’s return threatens an ABC of issues: he is still viewed by many as the architect of austerity, the instigator of Brexit and his relationship with China will spark concerns across the Party. There have also been many questions over his unelected role and how he will be scrutinised in the House of Commons. Additionally, the decision calls into question the talent within the rest of the Party, with Sunak clearly feeling as though he needed to look outside of Parliament for a suitable candidate.
In other moves, Rachel MacLean was replaced by Lee Rowley as housing minister, making him the 16th person to serve in this role in 13 years and the sixth since February last year. Sunak also moved Liz Truss ally Thérèse Coffey out of Defra, and former Health Secretary Steve Barclay in, in what is widely acknowledged as a demotion. Moreover, Victoria Atkins, formerly Financial Secretary to the Treasury, has come into Health at a particularly challenging time, facing twin challenges of NHS waiting lists and increased winter pressures. And despite rumours circulating, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has stayed in his position, a very sensible move from the Prime Minister with the Autumn Statement just a week away.
So what to make of all this? One thing we know for sure is that Suella Braverman will not go down quietly, as we have already seen through her fiery resignation letter published yesterday. She, and other right-wing backbenchers, will continue to be problematic for the Prime Minister, threatening his attempts to bring the Party together.
That said, it was clear that Sunak’s approach to date has not been working – even the annual Party Conference failed to make a dent in the polls – so a bold and authoritative reshuffle was necessary, and he has certainly delivered on that front. But will the revival of heavyweight Cameron bring back enough voters to help Sunak achieve his General Election mission? And will he, with his weak mandate, be able to bind the Party together in the coming months? That remains to be seen – watch out for our upcoming read on the Autumn Statement to find out more.