Boris Johnson has distanced himself from plans for a formal cabinet reshuffle after rumours of rewards and punishments swept Whitehall in the run-up to Monday’s vote of no confidence.
The PM is not “currently” planning a reshuffle, Downing Street has said, despite a report in The Telegraph that his closest supporters had urged him to promote more 2019-intake MPs and sack ministers who did not make public statements of support in advance of the vote.
Yesterday morning, Johnson was widely rumoured to be preparing to reorganise his top team. The Times reported that cabinet ministers expected him to “carry out a reshuffle within days to reassert discipline” and the Daily Mail said “plans for a summer reshuffle could be fast-tracked to take place in the coming days.”
The Financial Times (FT) said that “wavering Tory MPs were promised ministerial jobs in an early reshuffle if they stuck with Johnson”, while an ally of the PM said those who had offered “only tepid support”, including trade minister Penny Mordaunt, could expect to be fired.
Dozens of backbenchers had publicly called on the prime minister to resign. But the scale of the rebellion – with 41% of Tory MPs voting Johnson out – “means some government ministers and aides must have voted against Johnson in the secret ballot, while remaining publicly supportive”, said The Guardian.
A minister told the FT’s Stephen Bush that Downing Street has been “talking up” a reshuffle and “the prospect of a job is why some colleagues backed him”.
However, Bush noted that sacking ministers increases “the number of people with nothing to lose on the backbenches” and therefore Johnson “will never actually embark on a big reshuffle, because that would be politically stupid and far too risky”.
Yet failing to follow through on any promised promotions would “make it difficult for Johnson to win over rebels by pledging them jobs if his leadership faces another challenge next year”, he added.
Promotion for key critic?
Meanwhile, in an unexpected development, Johnson is being urged by allies to offer Jeremy Hunt the job of chancellor, despite the backbencher’s criticisms of the PM earlier this week.
Loyalists have reportedly concluded that the PM is better at winning elections than governing the country, and “vice-versa for Mr Hunt”, said The Telegraph.
The proposal has been compared to Gordon Brown’s decision to bring Peter Mandelson, a Tony Blair ally with whom he had clashed, into government to shore up his premiership. However, Hunt might not accept such an offer. In 2019 he rejected the chance to become Johnson’s defence secretary after losing to him in the leadership race.
The Times said Hunt “effectively put himself as the head of the anti-Johnson faction” before the confidence vote by urging Tory MPs to “change their leader or lose the next election”. Therefore, if Johnson did persuade him to join the cabinet, it would be a major blow for the rebels.