Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle sent waves through Whitehall as, among other changes, we saw the replacement of Sajid Javid as Chancellor of the Exchequer only three weeks out from what all reports are suggesting will be a fairly significant budget setting the tone for the next five years under the Conservatives. A change in one of the great offices of state will always cause some upset but the unexpected nature of Javid’s departure has caused extra problems throughout the corridors of power.
Along Whitehall – the UK’s Executive branch – there is a balance between the powers of government departments. There are two overarching styles: Ministerial and Prime Ministerial. The former allows each individual Secretary of State some level of autonomy over their department and how they run it – as the coalition arrangement forced David Cameron to do during his first term as PM – and the latter involves Number 10 having a level of micromanagement over each move the department makes with special advisors appointed by the Cabinet Office rather than ministers themselves. This is where the tension lay which led to the chancellor’s departure.
The treasury, as the most powerful department in the Government (whatever form of government used), is crucial in setting the tone of how Boris wants to run his administration. Javid, who had gotten used to autonomy leading four different departments under the previous two prime ministers, had developed an independent streak which concerned Number 10 and most crucially, the Prime Minister’s closest advisor Dominic Cummings.
The VoteLeave mastermind, Dominic Cummings, has rustled a few feathers since arriving at Number 10, he has clashed with everyone from the entire media pool to Boris’ girlfriend. However, his largest due was with the recently departed chancellor. The privately educated Oxford graduate has made no attempts to disguise his hatred for the Oxbridge types who typically advise ministers and the tension between Cummings and Javid due to his personally appointed advisors who limited Number 10’s ability to influence the treasury. Cummings won over in that battle as Javid was told that he could continue in his role as Chancellor of the Exchequer, as long as he was surrounded by the Cabinet Office, and resultantly Cummings’ spads (special advisors). Further creating the position he had carved out as “Chino” – Chancellor in name only, Sajid Javid instead chose to resign, not avoiding the issue in his resignation letter.
Where does this leave us now? His replacement, Rishi Sunak, has very little experience in government. First elected in 2015, he has risen quickly as a junior minister but Chancellor of the Exchequer will be his first full cabinet position. What he lacks in experience, the former hedge fund manager makes up for in the one skill that the Johnson ministry values more than any other: loyalty.