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The March of the Lightweight Brigade Continues

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Cabinet appointments are always a highlight for political geeks. They send so many messages about where power lies in the parliamentary party and what major policy reforms are going to find their way onto the statute book as the “big beasts” prepare to get hold of certain Whitehall departments.

By any measure the first cabinet of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s premiership was incredibly underwhelming. He essentially reappointed the Boris Johnson cabinet that were dubbed the “lightweight brigade” in a withering PMQs jibe from Keir Starmer.

By appointing the old guard, the threat of Boris Johnson looms large over Sunak and his cabinet. Key Johnson allies have retained their grip on the levers of Whitehall power. What is clear from these appointments is that Sunak is actually in a far weaker position that many thought possible. The threat of a Johnson return over the last week has clearly spooked the Sunak horses. With the Tories 30 points behind in the polls, there will be some on the backbenches who will be willing to give Sunak 12 months to recover their position. By October 2023, if they haven’t seen a significant shift in the public opinion on the Tories, they may well move for a Boris resurrection. He has the numbers and he would win.

So prepare for pro-Boris briefings. Prepare for “Sunak is out of his depth” briefings. This parliamentary Conservative Party is totally ungovernable. And it’s clear that Sunak feels vulnerable. Yes he was coronated rather than elected. But over half the parliamentary Conservative party either didn’t vote for him or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for anyone. The Gospel according to the Daily Mail despises him and so do their readers. He’s about to implement austerity 2.0 and he is the richest Prime Minister in centuries, which will be used against him as he yields the knife on frontline public service budgets.

Crucially this wasn’t a set of appointments that will worry Labour. In fact they will regard any impetus that Sunak may have received as long gone. The public will see the same old Tory faces, spouting the same old Tory lines, on the same old TV and radio interviews, day in and day out in the weeks and months to come. There’s no new players and no new tunes. The refresh button was never pushed.

The reappointment of the disgraced Suella Braverman, just a week after the Cabinet Secretary ruled she had to be dismissed for breaching national security protocols, immediately undermines Sunak’s charge that he will restore integrity. A rookie political mistake. He can’t afford them. The Tories are already a few pints in at the Last Chance Saloon.

There has been a long-standing view  from the Opposition that Sunak is better on Instagram than in reality. He will need to impress quickly with a series of speeches, assured PMQs’ performances and major House of Commons moments because what is clear is that on day one, when he had the chance to put clear blue water between himself and the ghosts of Conservative governments past, he failed miserably.

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