Since the start of this year, there have been 147 government resignations or sackings. That doesn’t mean 147 individuals have changed jobs. In many cases it is the same people cycling in and out of office. Suella Braverman holds the record, with just six days elapsing between her being fired from the Home Office by Liz Truss and rehired by Rishi Sunak.
Dominic Raab waited a little longer for rehabilitation, dismissed as justice secretary on 6 September, back in post by 25 October. How long he continues in office might depend on the outcome of an independent investigation into claims of bullying staff. Mr Raab denies all wrongdoing.
The justice secretary wrote to the prime minister, referring himself for investigation after two formal complaints were made about his behaviour. It is not yet clear who will do the investigating in the absence of an adviser on ministerial ethics. The post has been vacant since Lord Geidt resigned earlier this year. His predecessor, Sir Alex Allan, stood down after Boris Johnson took no action against Priti Patel, then home secretary, despite an inquiry suggesting that her bullying had breached the ministerial code.
Mr Sunak has promised to fill the post, but has not yet got round to it. He has also pledged to govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. That formula was meant to signal a break from the Johnson era, but the prime minister is finding it hard to turn over a new leaf with so many familiar faces in his government.
Only last week, Gavin Williamson, minister without portfolio, was forced to resign over accusations of bullying colleagues. Mr Williamson had previously been dismissed from Mr Johnson’s cabinet, where he conspicuously failed as education secretary during the pandemic. Before that, he was sacked by Theresa May for leaking information from a national security council meeting.
The probability that any minister hired by Mr Sunak has previously been fired by one of his predecessors is raised not only by the length of Conservative incumbency but by the volume of bad government packed into those 12 years. The Johnson reign was especially dense with scandal.
Mr Raab’s departure from the Foreign Office in September last year was widely seen as a rebuke for his handling of the crisis in Afghanistan a month earlier, when the Taliban seized Kabul. The then foreign secretary had not cut short a holiday to take charge of an evacuation that was later described as “chaotic and arbitrary” in a parliamentary committee report. MPs also noted “a fundamental lack of seriousness, grip or leadership” at the Foreign Office.
But failure rarely goes unrewarded for long in the current Conservative party. To compensate Mr Raab for his demotion, Mr Johnson gave him the title of deputy prime minister. That role has also been restored by Mr Sunak, along with the justice portfolio and the opportunity to revive the pointless, posturing bill of rights that Ms Truss shelved during her brief tenure in Downing Street.
Thus the cycle goes on, with cabinet jobs passing from one pair of unsafe hands to the next, and back again. Mr Sunak’s ambition for a fresh start was far-fetched, given the length of time his party has been in government. His policy of either ignoring or rewarding past ministerial failure makes it look downright delusional.