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LONDON — If his key appointments are any indication, Britain’s Rishi Sunak era might actually be… a bit boring.
Britain’s new leader has reappointed existing ministers, brought back old ones and largely kept critics on his side as he seeks to reassure jittery markets, allies and foes that the UK is no longer a home of chaos.
But the Prime Minister has at least had the chance to exact revenge on a number of his most vocal critics and has refused to offer any kind of promotion to his defeated rival, Penny Mordaunt.
Sunak entered 10 Downing Street on Tuesday with a promise to ‘fix’ the ‘mistakes’ made by his predecessor Liz Truss, after his sweeping economic prospectus spooked financial markets and helped raise borrowing costs in the UK – swiftly toppling his government amid bitter Tory recriminations and sparking a second Tory leadership race in two months.
Emerging from the wreckage of the Conservative Party, Sunak pledged to put politics aside and “build a government that represents the best traditions of my party”.
Nothing to see here
The biggest news of the redesign was that there wasn’t a whole lot of news. Several figures who served under Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss, including some who backed rival Boris Johnson in the last Tory leadership race, have retained their posts or moved to other leadership positions.
Sunak’s most important appointment was to keep Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor, sticking to a Cabinet veteran whom Truss had brought in from the cold two weeks earlier to tear up his failed economic programme.
James Cleverly was kept on as Foreign Secretary, while Ben Wallace stayed on as Defense Secretary – keeping two key ministries responsible for shaping British foreign policy intact. Chris Heaton-Harris remained secretary for Northern Ireland, while Nadhim Zahawi was moved from health to become chairman of the Conservative Party. The four men had backed Johnson in the leadership race last week, leaving other Boris supporters within the party relieved.
“At this early stage of the reshuffle, it looks like Rishi is aiming to unite the party rather than divide it,” said Michael Fabricator, a Conservative MP and Johnson ally. “Perhaps one of the mistakes Liz Truss made was to only fill the Cabinet with her supporters. That always creates a volatile situation.
In a raised eyebrow, Suella Braverman, a darling from the party right who made her own leadership bid earlier this year, has returned as home secretary less than a week after being fired for a leak of sensitive information. His reappointment looked like a debt being repaid following his unexpected support for Sunak over the weekend.
Commerce Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan, both chosen by Truss this summer, also kept their jobs.
A cabinet minister who did not back Sunak in either leadership race said the appointments were clearly an attempt at unity: “He put people in positions with a track record of success.”
Senior officials from other wings of the party were also impressed. “The new prime minister is clearly serious about including people from all sides of the party in his new cabinet,” said Nicky Morgan, former chairwoman of the centrist One Nation Conservatives group in parliament and now a member of the House of Lords. . “It’s a very encouraging start to the mandate.”
Other key allies of Sunak’s opponents were demoted, but allowed to remain on Sunak’s top team.
Therese Coffey, a close friend of Truss who served as his deputy prime minister and health secretary, was downgraded to the environment, food and agriculture file. Alok Sharma, who backed Johnson in the second race, retained his post overseeing the COP climate summits, but will no longer serve in the Cabinet – an obvious step back.
But it was the treatment of Mordaunt, the last candidate standing against Sunak in the latest leadership contest, that ruffled the most. She retained her relatively junior cabinet post as leader of the House of Commons, a move seen at Westminster as a snub given widespread expectations that she was to receive a major promotion.
A former cabinet minister argued that Mordaunt’s failure to promote looked like “an act of revenge or narrow-mindedness”. Mordaunt had refused to withdraw from the last leadership contest until it was clear that she did not have enough nominations from her fellow MPs to make the next round.
Yet some argued that even keeping her in the job was itself an olive branch, while one person familiar with the talks over her nomination said she had been offered a different role, but the ‘has refused. One of Mordaunt’s allies insisted she was happy to keep her current memory.
A Downing Street official insisted: “This Cabinet brings together the talents of the party. It reflects a unified party and a Cabinet with significant experience, ensuring that in these uncertain times there is continuity at the heart of government.
But there were also plenty of rewards for Sunak’s main supporters. Close allies Oliver Dowden, Michael Gove and Steve Barclay have been given Cabinet Office, Communities Department and Health Department roles respectively, just weeks after Truss sent them all packing.
Simon Hart was appointed Chief Whip, while Gillian Keegan was promoted to Cabinet for the first time as Education Secretary and Grant Shapps was moved on from his week-long stint as head of the Department of Education. ‘Interior (to replace the sacked Braverman) in the Business Department.
To make room for the new appointments, Sunak allowed himself some ruthless dismissals – although he allowed Cabinet ministers to technically resign to save their blushes.
Ministers considered close to Johnson, including Brandon Lewis and Kit Malthouse, were fired, as was Robert Buckland, who backed Sunak in the first leadership race only to unabashedly switch to Truss when it became clear that she would win.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of Sunak’s most vocal critics and a Johnson cheerleader, was also removed, along with top Truss lieutenants Ranil Jayawarenda and Simon Clarke. Rees-Mogg once called Sunak a ‘socialist’ – although he was quick to recant that criticism on Tuesday morning as the new prime minister picked his best team.
After telling the Tories over the weekend they had to ‘back Boris’ or ‘bust’ it wasn’t enough to save him from his fate.