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No 10 makes changes to assuage backbench fury, but is it enough?

08 February 2022

By Emily Chen

Acting on his promise to Conservative MPs that he has listened to concerns, the Prime Minister made several significant changes to his No 10 team. Following the flurry of resignations last week (Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield, the Prime Minister’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, Head of the No 10 Policy Unit and close ally of Johnson Munira Mirza, and Director of Communications Jack Doyle), Johnson shocked the Westminster bubble by appointing two sitting MPs as his new Chief of Staff and Head of the Policy Unit. The appointment of Steve Barclay to become his Chief of Staff raised immediate concerns about how he will manage to hold down this role in addition to being an MP with constituency concerns, as well as his ministerial role in the Cabinet Office. This afternoon’s reshuffle has seen other ministers appointed to the department to alleviate his burdens there, but it is still a highly unconventional decision to place an MP into this role.  The Chief of Staff role has traditionally been full time and time intensive, yet Barclay will still be accountable to Parliament, answering oral questions, being summoned to appear before select committees and potentially being subject to questions about his political role as Chief of Staff. 

The decision to make Andrew Griffith as policy chief is a more straightforward one, replicating the arrangement that Jo Johnson did at the end of the Coalition government in 2014-15, and Griffiths will seek to work with backbench policy groups run by the 1922 Committee to develop policy. 

Turning to Parliament, Johnson today performed a mini reshuffle to strengthen his Whips’ operation, merging his ‘shadow’ operation that has been used to shore up his position in the last few days with the official whips office. Chief Whip Mark Spencer, whose position has become untenable in recent weeks, was moved to become Leader of the House. He was placed by ‘shadow’ whip Chris-Heaton Harris, with  Chris Pincher and Stuart Andrew each swapping roles to become  Deputy Chief Whip and Housing Minister respectively. Andrew taking the housing portfolio means he is the 11th housing minister to do so in almost as many years. It will take some explaining to Conservative MPs, and others, that this is a sign of strength in delivering its levelling up agenda. 

Jacob Rees-Mogg MP was made a full member of Cabinet as Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, taking on some of the responsibilities that Lord Frost had been spearheading before his resignation. To address the concerns over Barclay’s appointment and ability to juggle several responsibilities, Michael Ellis QC MP became Minister for the Cabinet Office to help share the load. 

Deputy Leader of the Opposition Angela Rayner was critical of this decision, saying that it was the equivalent of “reshuffling the deckchairs when he’s already hit an iceberg”. This would seemingly support The Institute for Government’s Jill Rutter accused the Prime Minister of filling a ‘panicky stopgap’ rather than executing a clear strategy.  

Irrespective of the situation, there is clear justification for each of the moves. Giving Rees-Mogg jurisdiction over Brexit is logical, considering he is an ardent Brexiteer and was the chair of European Research Group for fellow Conservative Brexiteers. Furthermore, Chris Heaton-Harris is a good fit given his experience as Conservative Chief Whip in the European Parliament.  

While only 14 Conservative MPs have publicly stated that they have submitted letters of no confidence to the 1922 Committee Chair Sir Graham Brady, the number of letters is likely to be a lot higher, although how close to the 54 threshold needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister no one but Brady knows. The mini reshuffle may have bought the Prime Minister some time with disgruntled backbenchers, but when one considers the emerging narrative that the Prime Minister restricted himself to rewarding loyalists and his dive in popularity in recent opinion polls, he still faces significant challenges in preventing a no-confidence vote. Times reporter Mhari Aurora wrote about her conversations with several Conservative MPs, suggesting that “ship sailed a long time ago and no amount of reshuffles will ever make up for it”.