Loyalty is always a factor in reshuffles, and rarely more so than in today’s mini shake-up of Rishi Sunak‘s top team.
In a surgical incision, the PM replaced the semi-detached defence secretary Ben Wallace with one of his biggest cheerleaders in the form of Grant Shapps. Other figures with greater defence credentials, but less conspicuous loyalty to the PM, were overlooked.
Mr Shapps in turn was replaced by one of the PM’s own former aides, Claire Coutinho, with a wider reshuffle postponed until later in the autumn.
The timing of the shake-up was foist on the PM by Mr Wallace’s desire to go after four successful years in the gruelling job.
But the choice of Mr Shapps has raised eyebrows in the defence sector and renewed questions about his commitment to funding Britain’s security at a time of increasing global volatility.
JASON GROVES: Loyalty is always a factor in reshuffles, and rarely more so than in today’s mini shake-up of Rishi Sunak’s top team
Grant Shapps has served in a wide variety of posts throughout his political career, but never a defence brief
Children’s minister Claire Coutinho – another Sunak loyalist who was only elected to Parliament in 2019 – has been promoted to the top table to take over Mr Shapps’ duties
Some Tory MPs also voiced concerns privately that for all his communication skills, Mr Shapps comes across as a ‘lightweight’ who is ill-suited to the defence brief, particularly during a time of war.
Former military chiefs immediately sounded the alarm that the replacement of pugnacious Mr Wallace – a former soldier – with a loyalist ‘yes man’ will inevitably weaken the argument within government for increased defence spending.
They have a point. It is hard to imagine Mr Shapps putting his job on the line over the issue in the way Mr Wallace did, although even he eventually had to accept that straitened economic circumstances meant his dream of raising defence spending to three per cent of GDP would have to wait.
Downing Street has pushed back hard, pointing out that Mr Shapps’s former role had a significant security element and that he is fully committed to the fight to defend Ukraine, even taking in a refugee family in his own home.
Above all, sources point out, it is not necessary to have a military background to be a successful defence secretary, as evidenced by the career of former Nato chief Lord Robertson.
The biggest immediate shift may come not on military spending, but on immigration, where Mr Wallace was seen by No 10 as an obstacle to plans to house thousands of Channel migrants on MoD sites. Sources suggest the military is now likely to play a bigger role in dealing with the migrant crisis.
Mr Wallace confirmed his departure – announced last month – in an exchange of letters with the PM
On the Tory benches, there is at least as much interest in the meteoric rise of Mr Sunak’s former aide Claire Coutinho who has been catapulted into the Cabinet as Energy Secretary.
The 38-year-old former investment banker is virtually unknown outside Westminster. But she is fiercely loyal to Mr Sunak and highly rated both by him and other Tory MPs. Some ministers believe that today’s mega-promotion is just a stepping stone that could eventually see the PM’s protégé appointed as Britain’s first female chancellor.
But in the short term it looks a curious move. The highly-political Mr Shapps was waging an effective campaign against Sir Keir Starmer’s abandonment of the North Sea and Labour’s ambiguity towards guerilla campaigners like Just Stop Oil.
Is the more cautious Miss Couthino ready to take the fight to Labour over energy? And how will her green instincts fit with the more sceptical stance adopted by the government towards Net Zero in the wake of the Uxbridge by-election?
Before the summer, Tory sources had suggested a major reshuffle would be part of a wider ‘gear change’ designed to prepare the government for next year’s election.
But despite some minor changes – such as the recruitment of two battle-hardened former Tory advisers to senior roles in No 10 – there are few signs of a wider reset.
Government sources acknowledge that the Chancellor’s autumn statement is unlikely to contain much in the way of tax cuts.
And the decision to delay the wider reshuffle has also led to Tory concerns about drift in No 10, with one source saying it is ‘mad’ to continue with ministers who the PM is planning to axe later or who have already indicated they intend to quit at the election.
Mr Sunak is said to be ‘focused on delivery’, rather than obsessing about relaunches. It is an admirable approach. But, with an election now just a year or so away, and the Conservatives still languishing in the polls, some Tory MPs fear a bolder approach is needed.