New PM pledges to fix ‘mistakes’ of predecessor but return of former home secretary alarms some MPs
Rishi Sunak pledged to bring “integrity and accountability” as prime minister on his first day in No 10 but gambled by restoring Suella Braverman to the Home Office less than week after she was forced to resign for a security breach.
In a reshuffle billed as returning experienced hands to the top jobs, Sunak also risked alienating backers of his leadership rival Penny Mordaunt by dashing her hopes of promotion and leaving her with no option but to stay in a minor role.
As he entered No 10 as prime minister, the fifth in six years, Sunak said his government vowed to fix the “mistakes” of his predecessor Liz Truss and warned of “difficult decisions” to come.
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His first cabinet reshuffle attempted to maintain financial stability by keeping Jeremy Hunt as chancellor and bridge the divide with former Boris Johnson supporters by sticking with the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, and the defence secretary, Ben Wallace.
He installed Dominic Raab, his own key ally, who described Truss’s economics as a suicide note, as his deputy prime minister and justice secretary.
However, Sunak made several decisions that have surprised and even alarmed some MPs, as he reappointed Braverman as home secretary and declined to promote his former rival Mordaunt.
He also appointed David TC Davies as Welsh secretary despite his controversial comments on subjects including face veils, trans rights, child refugees, climate change and same-sex marriage.
Braverman, who still harbours her own leadership ambitions, was handed the job six days after she was forced to resign for a security breach for emailing confidential policy to a backbench MP, John Hayes, and trying to copy in his wife but mistakenly emailing it to another MP’s office. Officials raised alarm that Braverman may have been sharing sensitive information outside the department.
The return of Braverman, a Eurosceptic rightwinger, drew a shocked reaction from some MPs on the moderate wing of the party – but is widely seen as a “payback” for her endorsement of Sunak when Johnson still threatened a comeback during the leadership race last week.
Mordaunt almost forced Sunak into a runoff with the membership, and her allies had briefed she was expecting to be offered the role of foreign secretary. Instead, she remains as leader of the Commons, after also having been passed over for a bigger role under Truss.
“She’s been punished for not standing down earlier,” one of her backers said. Mordaunt, who was reportedly in No 10 for more than an hour, made clear her displeasure as she left without a smile.
Though a number of MPs expressed outrage on her behalf, a source close to Mordaunt said she did not regard it as a snub.
“She was offered a promotion. She declined it. She thinks continuity on a tight legislative programme is vital. Penny could not fold from the contest, otherwise members will think it was a stitch up.”
The reshuffle also appeared to reward a raft of men at the expense of women, with Braverman the only female cabinet minister to get a top job. Middle-ranking roles went to Thérèse Coffey, as environment secretary, Gillian Keegan as education secretary, Kemi Badenoch as trade secretary and Michelle Donelan as culture secretary. It also lacked cabinet ministers from northern “red wall” constituencies that the party will need to target at the general election.
A senior No 10 source said the reshuffle had been devised on the principles of “unity, experience and continuity” – reaching across party divides but restoring several cabinet ministers to previous departments, after the turmoil of mass ministerial resignations and changes of prime minister.
“Serious times require a serious cabinet; he’s kept true to his word on drawing talents from across the party,” the official said.
Sunak met King Charles III shortly after Truss departed and spoke on the steps of Downing Street just before midday, in a speech that drew a clear dividing line between his premiership and his predecessor’s and vowed to fix “mistakes” made by Truss.
The new PM struck a markedly sombre tone, without the usual throng of supporters welcoming him outside the black door. He warned there would be “difficult decisions to come” in an attempt to regain economic stability and avoiding further unsustainable borrowing.
Sunak also said the 2019 mandate for the Conservatives was “not the sole property of any one individual” but a “mandate that belongs to and unites all of us” – a swipe at those Tory MPs who have insisted he should seek a fresh endorsement from the public.
One of the first tasks of Sunak’s new administration will be to grapple with the £30bn fiscal black hole, which he is likely to be advised will require deep spending cuts.
He said there were “difficult decisions to come” but highlighted the furlough scheme he devised during the pandemic as chancellor and insisted: “I will bring that same compassion to the challenges we face today.”
Though Sunak said he admired Truss’s “restlessness to create change”, he said he was clear that “some mistakes were made” and he believed he had been chosen by Tory MPs “to fix them”. “That work begins immediately,” he stressed.
Within hours, a slew of ministers were reappointed to previous roles which they had held under Truss or Johnson, including Hunt, Braverman, Wallace and Cleverly.
He appointed his close friend Oliver Dowden to the Cabinet Office, as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, a role which is effectively Sunak’s top fixer across government.
Michael Gove, having previously said his days in government were behind him, returned to the levelling up department and Steve Barclay to the Department of Health and Social Care, where he was briefly in the role after resignations from Johnson’s cabinet.
Grant Shapps, who also supported Sunak, went to the business department after less than a week as home secretary.
Sunak also gave Gavin Williamson a cabinet role without a portfolio, ranging across government, the second resurrection of the former chief whip sacked by both May and Johnson for leaking from a security council and for underperforming at the Department for Education.
But below the surface of unity, it involved the sackings and resignations of 10 cabinet ministers, including key Johnson and Truss loyalists Jacob Rees-Mogg, Simon Clarke and Chloe Smith, as well as Robert Buckland, who had irritated Team Sunak by switching allegiance to Truss during the summer.
Later in the day the new prime minster held a series of phone calls both with the leaders of the devolved nations – something Truss failed to do in her entire premiership – and other world leaders, including Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Joe Biden.
Sunak said it was a “privilege” to speak to the Ukrainian president and reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to aiding Ukraine, while the US president said the UK remains his country’s “closest ally”.
Allies of Sunak said Hunt would have been unlikely to be Sunak’s first choice as chancellor, though the former foreign secretary backed him both times in the leadership race.
One senior source said the pair had irritated each other during the pandemic, where Hunt – as the chair of the health select committee – had made a case for big Covid interventions and Sunak had been the man on the inside making a case for reopening the economy.
Two Whitehall sources said it had been Sunak’s ambition to merge business and industrial strategy with international trade, and create a separate energy ministry. But they acknowledged that a major Whitehall restructure would be difficult in the current crisis.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN