Feb 7, 2023
Rishi Sunak Reshapes UK Government Departments After Rocky Start
(Bloomberg) -- Rishi Sunak’s mini cabinet reshuffle left Conservative MPs unconvinced it will do enough to reset his premiership.
The UK prime minister on Tuesday re-purposed three government departments into four, creating new ministries focused on energy security and science. The most substantial change was the partition of the sprawling Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy — which had been privately criticized as ineffective by Downing Street officials.
Kemi Badenoch saw her responsibilities grow, with business added to her existing trade remit, while Michelle Donelan was put in charge of the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology — a brief that’s a priority for the prime minister. Lucy Frazer took Donelan’s old post, becoming the new culture, media and sport secretary. Sunak also named Grant Shapps as energy security secretary and Greg Hands as Conservative Party chairman.
After 100 days largely focused on cleaning up the mess left by his predecessors Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, Sunak is seeking to reshape the government to focus on his priorities. He regularly talks of the need to focus on technology and embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley, while Russia’s war in Ukraine has also highlighted the need for Britain to become more self-sufficient in its energy production.
But with the ruling Conservative Party trailing Labour by more than 20 points in most recent polls, two Conservative MPs used the same analogy to describe the changes, comparing them to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
One said the restructuring was sensible in principle, but added that with a general election due by January 2025 there was little time for them to have any significant effect.
A government official complained that while Downing Street had urged ministers to focus on Sunak’s so-called “five pledges” on the economy, the National Health Service and small boats, the restructuring fell across different areas. They questioned whether voters would be interested in a mini-reshuffle centered on creating a new science department during ongoing crises with the NHS and cost of living.
While Shapps’s new remit of long-term energy security is a vital one for the UK, colleagues said he would see it as a demotion having previously been in charge of business and industrial strategy as well as energy. He’s been given the task of securing the UK’s long-term energy supply, bringing down bills and halving inflation.
While Badenoch’s position has been boosted, that may be superficial as most of the existing departmental budget and responsibilities would be split elsewhere. Security decisions on foreign investments in UK assets, an increasingly important area that previously fell under the business department, will be taken by the Cabinet Office.
Conservative colleagues also noted Badenoch had been kept away from the party chairmanship, from which she may have been able to launch a future leadership bid.
Donelan’s move to Sunak’s flagship science department is a promotion, and she’s seen in Downing Street as a rising star who will make major government announcements in the coming months on areas like semiconductors, artificial intelligence and life sciences, one person said.
One MP said it felt like Sunak knew he was going to lose the next election and wanted to put in place a legacy based on his vision for Britain to become the next Silicon Valley.
Her old job was initially offered to Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who rejected it because he feels his existing task is essential to the Tories’ electoral prospects, according to a person familiar. That he offered it to Gove suggests he views science as more important than levelling up, Johnson’s flagship policy as premier, a government official said.
Frazer, the former housing minister, takes over a thinned out culture, media and sport department, which has lost the digital remit. A new secretary of state there could mean further delays to policy papers on football governance and gambling, a government official warned.
It also means the government will have had six housing ministers in a year, amid criticism that it has failed to meet its manifesto promise on housebuilding.
The appointments came more than a week after Sunak fired the previous party chairman, Nadhim Zahawi, over a tax scandal. His replacement, Hands, will need to oversee the Conservatives’ upcoming local election campaign in May — an unenviable task given the party’s polling deficit. He’s seen as an experienced campaigner and safe choice, although not a name likely to rally a weary membership. Lee Anderson, a vocal Brexit-backer and former Labour politician elected in 2019 for the northern “Red Wall” seat of Ashfield, was named deputy chairman.
Questions still remain over the future of Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, a key ally who serves as deputy prime minister and justice secretary, amid a formal investigation into a raft of bullying allegations. When that’s published, Sunak may need to make further changes to his top team.
--With assistance from Ellen Milligan.
(Adds appointment of Lee Anderson in penultimate paragraph.)
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