Why reshuffle-shy Boris Johnson is reluctant to sack ministers

Analysis: Dominic Raab is saved for now but enters ministerial limbo ahead of PM’s long-awaited shake-up of top team

Dominic Raab appears to have been saved this week by Boris Johnson’s exceptionally high threshold for sacking ministers. For now, the foreign secretary has joined the reshuffle waiting room, sitting in ministerial limbo alongside Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel.

The prime minister has faced pressure from within his own party as well as from the opposition to remove them all – over Williamson’s failure on exams for two years in a row, the finding that Patel bullied staff, and Raab’s ill-advised holiday at the height of an international crisis.

Yet they all survive in their jobs, waiting to learn of their fates at Johnson’s long-awaited plan to shake-up his top team.

A reshuffle was meant to happen earlier this year – potentially in January – to mark a year since choosing his new election cabinet. Another one was mooted for before the summer – a more traditional time of year for reshuffles, so that sacked ministers are given a few months off to cool down.

Now the speculation among Tory MPs is that one planned for September may not happen until later in the year or even January 2022. The FT reported this week that Johnson wanted to wait at least until after the Cop26 in November in order to find a spot for Alok Sharma, the former business secretary, who is deemed to have done a creditable job as his climate change envoy.

Those with knowledge of No 10 point to Johnson’s dislike of being dictated to by the demands of newspapers, fractious backbenchers and Labour.

But there is also another factor in the repeated decision to put off a reshuffle, which is the prime minister’s well-known dislike of confrontation and disappointing people.

Where he has lost senior ministers – Sajid Javid as chancellor and Matt Hancock as health secretary – they had found themselves in positions where they felt they had to resign, rather than being invited to interviews without coffee in Downing Street.

Raab and Patel, while not close to Johnson, are veterans of the Vote Leave team that swept into power after the downfall of Theresa May. Williamson was a close ally on Johnson’s leadership bid, running the whips’ operation of Tory MPs pledging their allegiance to him. A former chief whip, he also knows a lot of secrets.

A reshuffle creates enemies on the backbenches, and Johnson – who is said to like to surround himself with “old dogs” rather than potential rivals – does not appear keen to have the likes of Williamson making trouble on the backbenches.

Raab, who some Tories believe is not particularly fond of the job of foreign secretary, would be more likely to face a job swap to another big office of state, or perhaps justice secretary, given his legal background and interest in home affairs.

As a party management tactic, holding off on reshuffles allow the whips to keep the promise of promotion in the air for any potentially rebellious backbenchers.

But in the meantime there is a growing cast of cabinet ministers who fear they may not last much longer in their jobs, leaving a trail of failure and questions over competence in their wake.


Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'Useful fall guy': a preview of Boris Johnson's minister ratings | John Crace
What does the PM think of Saj, the Gover and the rest, and who will keep their cabinet posts?

John Crace

20, Jan, 2020 @6:32 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the cabinet: a paucity of talent | Editorial
Editorial: Government in Britain relies on a critical mass of serious secretaries of state. The current crop is worryingly lightweight


11, Jun, 2020 @5:40 PM

Article image
Where do Theresa May's ministers stand on Brexit?
From loyalists to Brexit ultras, the cabinet can be grouped into at least six key factions

Pippa Crerar Deputy political editor

12, Nov, 2018 @6:27 PM

Article image
Reshuffle reveals the shallowness of the Tory gene pool of talent | John Crace
PM prizes uselessness above all with new jobs for the likes of Truss, Gove and Dorries

John Crace

15, Sep, 2021 @9:31 PM

Article image
At least 10 cabinet ministers considering prime ministerial bids
Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove among the Tories who could try to succeed Theresa May

Rowena Mason, Heather Stewart , Rajeev Syal and Jessica Elgot

28, Mar, 2019 @7:59 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson's reshuffle: who's in, who's out, at a glance
The winners and losers as the prime minister changes his ministerial team

Kate Proctor and Peter Walker

13, Feb, 2020 @3:58 PM

Article image
Six urgent items in Boris Johnson's inbox as he returns
The prime minister returns to work on Monday, with tough decisions to be made

Heather Stewart Political editor

26, Apr, 2020 @4:00 PM

Article image
Who will be in the running to replace Theresa May?
May has told Tory MPs she will step down before the next stage of Brexit talks. But who might take over?

Dan Sabbagh

27, Mar, 2019 @5:47 PM

Article image
Today at the Conservative party conference
Johnson claims to be ‘the model of restraint’ and Matt Hancock stands corrected on the number of hospital upgrades

Heather Stewart

29, Sep, 2019 @6:36 PM

Article image
Tory leadership race: a to-do list for the candidates
Our chief political correspondent assesses what each contender left needs to do to make the ballot

Jessica Elgot

13, Jun, 2019 @4:45 PM