This reshuffle is about settling scores – the electorate deserves better than this needless turmoil

Janet Street-Porter
·5 min read

Having been publicly humiliated, Sajid Javid put on a top performance. In reality, the bloke was forced out of his job – but the former chancellor appeared smiley and gracious as he returned home without his ministerial red box, emerging to issue a brief statement.

Javid told us he’d quit in order to keep his self-respect, but in the real world of work, outside the Westminster goldfish bowl, this is known as constructive dismissal.

British democracy works in a brutal and wasteful fashion. Voters are continually being asked to consume less, to live within our means and to consider the environment – but the same rules don’t apply to the business of running the country, where human resources are treated with contempt. If government departments were factories laying people off in this fashion it would be leading the evening news.

Maybe we won’t think of politicians as workers like the rest of us – polls show most are regarded with utter cynicism – but at the end of the day, they are tasked with running our country. Being sacked or made redundant (it’s happened to me a handful of times) is an unpleasant experience. It makes you question so many things and knocks your self-esteem for six. Generally getting sacked is never your fault – people get sacked because it suits someone more powerful higher up the food chain – and that’s exactly what has happened in Downing Street. This reshuffle is all about scores being settled.

In Dominic Cummings’ world, highly educated MPs who have had to learn complicated briefs and lead huge teams are disposable players in his grand scheme who can be put in the recycling bin. This ritual culling, and the appointment of senior ministers who are expected to toe the line, is bizarre in the extreme.

How can someone know all about Northern Ireland, housing or foreign aid overnight? At best, they can only be gifted amateurs, relying on their advisers. Now, loyalty and a non-questioning mindset seems to be valued over innovative or creative thinking, and those advisers come from a small gene pool, approved by mission control. In a secondary cull, dozens of junior ministers and special advisors will be packing their bags and clearing their offices. How can this turmoil be justified?

Boris Johnson seems to be turning into Donald Trump – whose capacity to sack any appointee (usually via a hostile tweet) who dares to question his judgement remains extraordinary. But it’s a mistake for any boss to think that people who stand up to you are bad team players. If a leader’s plans have any areas of weakness, who will help to refine them? That now seems to be the job of Cummings and his non-elected team of intellectuals and “weirdos”. Downing Street has become mission control for every aspect of government policy, and anyone who deviates will be purged. Not so very different from the White House or Beijing.

Another savage staffing cull emerged this week, in the Royal Household – Harry and Meghan are closing their office in Buckingham Palace and moving, or getting rid of 15 members of staff. These loyal workers had the difficult task of dealing with the media and running their diaries and their social media accounts, including a newly appointed private secretary and a head of communications who had worked for the Obamas and Hillary Clinton. Apparently the couple told staff in January, when they made the unexpected announcement they were stepping down from royal duties. Many of them are negotiating redundancy packages – along, no doubt, with non-disclosure agreements. Who will be paying?

Dominic Cummings has said he is determined to curb unnecessary waste in Whitehall, wants to combine some ministries and reduce the number of civil servants and special advisers. Events of this week don’t indicate that will happen – one kind of advisor is simply being replaced with another. The money this requires isn’t negligible either – eight government ministers such as Andrea Leadsom, who lost their jobs, will be entitled to a quarter of their former salary if they are not given a comparable post within three weeks.

Ministers and MPs have generous pensions and allowances, so let’s not weep over their finances – it’s the waste in human terms that enrages. The UK has a housing crisis and yet one government after another has thought it acceptable to appoint 10 ministers in the last decade. Rishi Sunak was a junior housing minister less than a year ago – a former banker married to the daughter of a billionaire, his home is a palatial mansion set in parkland with a lake in North Yorkshire.

Mr Sunak seems smart and engaging – my friends in his constituency have nothing but praise for his devotion to local causes. His unexpected (or pre-planned?) leap into the top job raises all sorts of questions though. Charming bankers are still driven by the need for profit above everything else, otherwise they would be brain surgeons or nurses. At the heart of Boris Johnson’s decision making is a moral bankruptcy – how could he replace Julian Smith, who had won the trust of all parties in Northern Ireland – with Brandon Lewis, a man with no direct experience of the brief, a man who previously had been demoted from party chair? Smith’s crime was to promise an investigations unit that would look into allegations against former veterans during the Troubles. His other crime was to oppose Johnson over Brexit.

Voters have said they want key policy areas such as education, housing and health to be removed from party politics, to be run by consensus. Sadly, that practical solution seems further away than ever. The prime minister seems determined to capture our hearts with big bold statements and gestures – but we also know (like Trump) he’s not concerned with detail. Bringing his dreams to fruition requires long-serving teams, not a gang of old pals parachuted in because they won’t argue.

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