Left to right: Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Michael Gove
Cabinet reshuffles are like political Christmas in Westminster. As a spectator there is an almost carnival atmosphere as you sit around gossiping about who is going to get what, an anticipation of a much hoped for sacking and the giddy expectation of a new shiny gift that you had hoped would be a Playstation, but is actually a disappointing pair of novelty socks, which will be amusing for the one day, but then you wake up every day with a dreadful foreign secretary and you realise the joke was very much on you.
The firings and hirings are the meat of the meal in a government reshuffle, but they are not the best bit. The best bit is watching junior ministers in the tea rooms trying valiantly to pretend that they are “honestly not fussed at all”. They are all really fussed. They must, however, act casual, nonchalant and disinterested while never being 30cm away from their phones in case that special call might come. Being in the Commons tea room during this reshuffle was like watching an amateur dramatic production where a group of fully grown men had been cast as listless teenage boys.
We opposition MPs are no better. In this particular political ballet we play the part of imp, where if you see any would-be-promoted you jeer, “Hoping for home sec?” I have watched many government reshuffles, but the very best performance of “not bothered” came from Shailesh Vara, who I was in a meeting with in 2018 when Theresa May was in the middle of a reshuffle. His phone rang to much embarrassment on his part and he ended the call and apologised. I played my part and ribbed him gently that we were happy for him to take the call, after all it might be the prime minister offering him a job. He responded by jokingly saying, “I assure you that will not be the case”. We continued the meeting. It transpired after the meeting that it had in fact been a call offering him the job of under secretary of state in Northern Ireland. That is true commitment to nonchalance. Luckily for him they called back.
The purpose of this week’s reshuffle, and all those that have gone before, is to give the sense of a new broom sweeping away the problems of the recent past. This one seemingly has, like everything the Tories do, been trailed with a natty slogan. It is apparently a “levelling up” reshuffle – although not if you are Robert Jenrick of course. There is very little for me to delight in in the new line up. Alas the organ grinder remains the same. A few new faces will do little to give me any faith that this new team of people will try to reimagine governance as something that is open and honest, nor will it reinstall some of the principles of decency that I have felt to be so very lacking of late.
There is one very big reason to be cheerful though and that is the loss of Gavin Williamson from senior office. Surely he wears the crown of worst education secretary in history, at a time when we really needed a good one. Never trust a man who needs props to look commanding. I cannot count the ways in which his position has worried me. He failed the kids in my constituency, he seemingly took no interest in the plight of children with special educational needs, he appeared to care more about ensuring racists could speak at universities than he did about sexual abuse on campus, but for me it was even more personal. I feel as if he failed my own children.
I always thought it was dumb luck that my son was born under the last Labour government, who provided him with the first ever free nursery places. We received tax credits as well to help pay for childcare so I could afford to work and for him to be cared for. My son also has a savings account that the Labour government gave him and put money into, so it wasn’t just trust fund kids who had a nest egg. Together we played together at our local Sure Start children’s centre and when things were tough, they were there to help me out. My eldest was a kid born at the right time – that was until he found himself doing his GCSEs under the unwatchful eye of Williamson. Boy did I feel as if we were paying back some of that good policy debt.
All the shiny new ministers will no doubt say “levelling up” more than they actually do any of it. Until they are inevitably levelled down themselves, when they will pretend very nonchalantly to be completely fine about it all. Vive la difference.
Jess Phillips is the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding and Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley.
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