‘A cabinet of all the talents’? Rishi Sunak’s troubled start

(Photo: Flickr – Number 10)

By Sam Chapman – Contributor

When Rishi Sunak entered Downing Street as Prime Minister on October 25th, after a rushed leadership election, he vowed to bring with him a cabinet “of all the talents.” This team, he said, would prioritise integrity and professionalism in all it did. He promised to draw on all wings of the Conservative and Unionist Party to build a stable coalition of interests and rehabilitate their chances at the next election. This cabinet never materialised, and only one month in Sunak’s vision has come undone, as the government is hammered with all-too familiar scandals.

Standing in Conservative Party HQ upon winning the parliamentary nomination, Sunak spoke of the “stability and unity” he hoped the bring to the country. When he arrived grim-faced at No.10 the next day it was clear this mission weighed heavy on him – all hinged on the Cabinet he was about to build. Liz Truss departed Downing Street with a 16% personal approval rating, the Party itself faring little better at 24%. A clean start was needed, and Sunak’s rhetoric echoed this. Unfortunately, his actions did not.

The Cabinet he selected did not represent change on the scale he promised. The four great offices of state include the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Foreign and Home Secretaries. In these offices, the only newcomer was the PM himself: he either reinstated or kept in place three ministers who had served Liz Truss during her troubled tenure. Jeremy Hunt remained at the Treasury, Suella Braverman was put back in the Home Office, and James Cleverly stayed at the Foreign Office. This was more reshuffle than reset, and this trend goes deeper:

There are 22 permanent ministers in the Cabinet, and a further 8 who attend its meetings. Of these 30 positions, just 6 are fresh faces introduced by Sunak – the rest have previously sat at the table at various points since 2015. Further to this, 15 of these ministers – half of the current cohort – held posts under Liz Truss. The change in personnel under Rishi Sunak was minimal, and with familiar faces came familiar problems. 

Sunak’s choice of Home Secretary was the first indication that he might not be a harbinger of unity. Suella Braverman – a failed leadership contestant, legacy Truss cabinet minister, and darling of the Tory right – has laden her career with promises to take down the ‘woke leftand presented Sunak with his first and longest-lasting political headache. Six days before Sunak took office, Braverman resigned as Liz Truss’ Home Secretary, stating that she had used her personal email to send a private, market-sensitive document to a backbencher, and believed this a breach of the ministerial code worthy of resignation. Whether this was her true reasoning, or if she was simply keen to jump a sinking ship, it reflected poorly on Sunak when he reinstated her to the post so soon. 

Accusations soon emerged that Sunak had promised Braverman the job in return for her backing in the leadership race, where her support for Boris Johnson could have feasibly paved his path back to No.10. Whatever the motivations, it is a talking point Labour are thankful for. This was doubly true when it came to light Braverman had allegedly breached the ministerial code six times under similar circumstances, earning her the Whitehall nickname ‘Leaky Sue.’ As the questions around her judgment stacked up, so too did the pressure on Sunak to explain her appointment. He did not rush to defend his Home Secretary but was notable in his silence as he allowed her to ride out the storm.

In time the PM was forced to voice his support for Braverman after a petrol-bomb attack on the overcrowded Manston refugee centre reaffirmed criticisms of her suitability. This crisis meant that doubts over Braverman’s conduct went from a social media storm to a material threat to Sunak’s credibility. Braverman remains in post.

The same cannot be said of Sir Gavin Williamson, who became the second member of Sunak’s cabinet to fall into the line of fire. After being sacked as Defence Secretary under Theresa May, then sacked as Education Secretary under Boris Johnson, Williamson broke the mold in November by resigning of his own volition as Minister Without Portfolio. His job title, as vague as it is unknown, gave Williamson no specific responsibilities but considerable reach in Sunak’s cabinet, which he attended just twice in his short tenure. A deeply unpopular man amongst colleagues and party members alike, Williamson’s reintroduction to Cabinet by Sunak was as baffling as Johnson’s decision to give the man a knighthood in March of this year. 

The wheels quickly fell off. On November 4th it was reported that Williamson had sent a string of abusive text messages to then-Chief Whip Wendy Morton venting his anger at having not been invited to Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral. Once it became known that a formal complaint had been made against Williamson, others came forward. Within days Williamson stood accused of having threatened to throw a civil servant out of a window and suggesting another should “slit [their] own throat.” 

Unlike with Braverman, Sunak was here quick to give support. On the evening of November 7th a Downing Street spokesperson quoted the PM as having “full confidence” in his Minister Without Portfolio. Within twelve hours Williamson had resigned in disgrace. This format is all-too reminiscent of the theatrics of the Johnson government and delivered yet another blow to Sunak’s claims to integrity.

The most recent, perhaps most fatal problem of personnel hit very close to home. Dominic Raab is currently the Justice Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister; the very same titles he held for the final year of Johnson’s government. He was instrumental in Sunak’s summer leadership campaign, delivering the opening speech at the official ‘Ready For Rishi’ launch, and remains amongst the PM’s closest allies. As such, it will be a cause of much concern and embarrassment for Sunak that his deputy now faces two formal complaints into his conduct.

The nature of these complaints mirrors those of Williamson, albeit much more bizarre. He allegedly became so angry in a meeting with the Ministry of Justice that he “hurled” tomatoes from his salad across the room at a civil servant. Other reports claim that senior Whitehall officials have had to apologize to the Home Office on Raab’s behalf after he apparently had them frightened of being in their own offices. Reports of these nature built up in such volume that Raab was forced last week to request an investigation into his own behaviour, although he made no promises to step down if it does not report back in his favour. The PM responded to this request saying he would be “keen” to open the inquiry, though keenness seems unlikely. Raab’s Malcom Tucker-like episodes display yet again that Sunak has relied too heavily on a leopard changing its spots.

To date, these three examples constitute the major issues of personnel in the Sunak government, but it is not difficult to see where future problems might emerge. Truss’ decision to appoint Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor of the Exchequer after the fall of Kwasi Kwarteng was a point of contention for staunch Brexiteers, who still associate Hunt with the Remain campaign of 2016. Sunak’s decision to keep Hunt on reignited these concerns, and recent reports that the government might be considering a Swiss-style relationship with the EU to ease trading in Europe will cause serious unease amongst many backbenchers. The political musical chairs we have come to associate with Conservative government wears on, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Rishi Sunak’s hopes to resuscitate his party cannot come to fruition while the same personalities are being recycled through successive cabinets.

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