The reshuffle moves that would make sense according to the data
There has been occasional chatter of a second major cabinet re-shuffle of the Johnson ministry when the coronavirus outbreak finally ends. The re-shuffle of the opposition frontbench may have dominated headlines recently, but it has been over a year since Boris Johnson’s first reshuffle. Looking at polling data from both within the Conservative and Unionist Party and the wider public, there are four additions and four removals that would make objective political sense, if there were to happen in a reshuffle in the near future.
The first addition will be the return of former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith. Mr Smith spent just 204 days in his role but was thought to be crucial in breaking the deadlock between unionist and nationalist parties to restore the devolved administration of Stormont. The Social Democratic Labour Party leader Colum Eastwood tweeted following his dismissal: “Thank you @JulianSmithUK for your tireless commitment to devolution, for the work you’ve done for victims of historical institutional abuse & for securing much needed resource for Derry. Sacking the most successful SoS in a decade shows Johnson’s dangerous indifference to us.” First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “We may not have always agreed but his dedication to the role was incredible”, while Mr Smith also received praise from ministers in Dublin. Mr Johnson has made strengthening the union one of his priorities in office and reappointing someone who received such high praise from unionists and nationalists alike would make political sense.
Opinion polling since Mr Smith’s departure and the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union has seen a not-insignificant drop of support for both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, though Sinn Fein remains ahead of their coalition partners by 5 points in the recent poll for the Belfast Telegraph. The Alliance Party and Social Democratic Labour Party are third and fourth, ahead of the Ulster Unionist Party. There is, of course, the recent flare-up of civil unrest in Ulster. Mr Smith’s experience in negotiation with parties from both communities and his relative success would suggest he would be equipped better than most to deal with the issues, so a return to the Northern Ireland Office could be a wise move.
The next suggestion addition is the return of Sajid Javid. Mr Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in what was seen as a power struggle with Dominic Cummings for control of the Treasury with Number 10 calling for the imposition of Downing Street approved advisors. Mr Cummings is of course, now gone. It is worth noting according to YouGov, Mr Javid is currently the 10th most popular Tory politician in the UK, but second of current MPs not in cabinet, behind only Theresa May, and having been Home Secretary as well he would bring nearly two years of Great Office experience back to the Cabinet.
In January, the Mail Online reported he was being lined up as the replacement for Alok Sharma as Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, as he moved to be full-time COP26 President, though this role went to Kwasi Kwarteng. Carrie Symonds was reported to be an advocate for the return of Mr Javid, who at one point was Tory activists’ preferred pick to replace Mrs May as leader. Coming shortly after his appointment at the Home Office, this was thought to be a signal that the membership wanted someone new by ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman. Mr Javid’s time in senior cabinet roles was cut short by his resignation, though some felt his position was safe in the days leading up to the re-shuffle, and a return might make sense due to his popularity within and outside the party.
Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s only female Defence Secretary, has enjoyed at times strong popularity with Tory members. A former naval reservist, Ms Mordaunt was said to be the most critical of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement in private. She was, of course, a Brexiteer during the referendum campaign. Having first stood for Portsmouth North in 2005 and winning the seat in 2010, she has increased her voter share in every election, including by 7.8 points in 2017, when the Tories lost the neighbouring Portsmouth South following a 21.5 point surge from Labour’s Stephen Morgan to overtake Flick Drummond, who had only a small increase in voter share. Ms Mordaunt has won praise from across the political divide in the past for using sign language in the Commons when discussing a Global Disability Conference and for her respectful handling of Alexia Pepper De Caires, a demonstrator and charity whistleblower who interrupted her during her conference speech discussing sexual abuse in the aid sector.
Ms Mordaunt was the first minister that raised concerns publicly about the A-Level crisis last summer, aligning with several Tory backbenchers and the wider public, her original departure was the biggest surprise of Boris Johnson’s first set of cabinet appointees, as she was seen by most commentators to have performed well in her 85 days in office, this given her popularity might also make her return a wise move.
Tory backbencher Sir Charles Walker has never been in the executive branch of British Government but has been a prominent rebel against the extent of coronavirus restrictions in light of civil liberties and raised concerns over increased restrictions on the right to protest, whilst the response to his “pint of milk” speech was mixed, he has won a great deal of support amongst some. He similarly rebelled against the government to back the genocide amendment of the trade bill. During the coalition years, he was often praised for his oratory abilities, particularly when discussing his OCD alongside Labour’s Kevan Jones discussing his depression. Adding Sir Charles could signal the Government is willing to listen to alternative views and that message could help.
Sir Charles last May called for Parliament to resume as soon as possible, so legislators could hold the Government accountable. He has the potential to appeal to more libertarian-leaning and restrained executive-leaning voters. He has won praise from some on the left for his speeches in the Commons in the recent year and his approach might signal more accountability from a Government that has found itself facing accusations of sleaze. Whilst these accusations do not appear to be compelling to voters yet, there is no guarantee it will stay that way.
The first suggestion for removal is Home Secretary Priti Patel, Ms Patel is popular among Tory members, but this is not the case amongst other voters, in particular, she is deeply unpopular in the Red Wall, which the Tories would want to keep their control of and win even more seats. A December poll by JL Partners, reported on in the Independent, found she was the least popular member of the Cabinet in the red wall, with -34%. YouGov found that 42% of people had an unpopular opinion of her, compared to just 30% who have a positive opinion.
What might help Ms Patel is her popularity is highest amongst Baby Boomers, who typically tend to outvote younger generations. That JL Partners poll suggested the Tories would lose 36 of the 45 seats in the Red Wall they had picked up in 2019, and though recent local elections have suggested the Tories have retained more of that support, this was a local election with different issues at stake and Ms Patel does not have a great deal of popularity outside her party.
Conversely, Minister without Portfolio and Party Chair, Amanda Milling is unpopular with Tory members, consistently appearing towards the bottom in ConHome surveys, as she has the responsibility for running CCHQ and membership campaigns, this might be problematic if the activists and campaigners do not like her.
On the week of the local elections, Ms Milling said the party could lose up to 1,000 seats. At the time of writing, they have made a net gain of 249, with a net gain of 11 local authorities. Iain Dale has suggested Ms Milling’s popularity was not due to pessimism, but that she had suffered from the fact there is little for her to do, with co-chair Ben Elliot having the far greater role. The conclusion was that Ms Milling is not brilliant at dealing with media, though she had little prior experience to her appointment, though her previous role as Deputy Whip suited her much better. Downing Street is reportedly underwhelmed by her performance and with the membership not talking to her, it would be logical to see her removed or placed in a position that better suits her.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is also unpopular with the membership according to the ConHome surveys. Though he has made improvements in recent months, he still found himself with a score of -26.9% in the most recent survey. Ms Milling at -3.6 was the only other name on the list in negative figures.
Mr Williamson, of course, found himself facing lots of criticism for the exam grades fiasco and the deployment of an algorithm to determine grades. Mr Williamson does not appear to be doing well outside the party, with YouGov putting his unpopularity at 30%, with just a positive rating of 17%, putting his net rating at -13%. The Government has faced a lot of criticism for last summer’s exam grades fiasco with Mr Williamson being in charge of the Department of Education. Though the Ofqual chief regulator and Permanent Secretary of the Department have resigned, Mr Williamson’s popularity with both members and the wider public still has not recovered. A Whitehall source told The Sun in February that Mr Williamson had lost the confidence of the unions, teachers, parents and Mr Johnson.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has also been ranked very low in the ConHome surveys, but he has fluctuated a lot more, he was as low as -10.3 in November, though has improved steadily since then. 46% of YouGov respondents gave him a negative rating, compared to just 26% giving him a positive rating, this puts his net popularity lower than Mr Willamson currently.
In November, the Daily Mirror said Mr Hancock was vulnerable due to the failure over contact tracing and whilst he has benefited from the vaccine bounce, given his portfolio, he has been drawn into the sleaze allegations over the fact he owns shares in a company which has been approved as a supplier for NHS trusts in England. The company, Topwood, has contracts with NHS Wales, though devolution means Mr Hancock does not have responsibility for NHS Wales. The Department has said Mr Hancock has no active role in running the company, and he did discuss the shares with civil servants before accepting. Polling suggests the public are not buying into the allegations but Mr Johnson has been reported to be seriously considering removing him several times since the outbreak began, with his unpopularity, this might put Mr Hancock back into the firing line in spite of his steady improvement amongst the membership.