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Why Boris Johnson’s reshuffle is being called a ‘power grab’

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Boris Johnson with his advisor Dominic Cummings

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PM’s demand for sacking of Sajid Javid’s advisors seen as a centralisation of power

One-Minute Read The Week Staff
Friday, February 14, 2020 - 12:26pm

Boris Johnson has been accused of a power grab after promoting loyalists in a cabinet reshuffle that saw Sajid Javid quit his role as chancellor.

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Javid resigned yesterday after the prime minister demanded that he fire his team of aides and replace them with advisers chosen by No. 10 - a condition that the outgoing chancellor argued “no self-respecting minister” could accept.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg says the cabinet rejig reshuffle saw Johnson “choose power over personnel”, while the Daily Mirror’s front page today depicts the PM’s advisor Dominic Cummings as the puppet master behind the “brutal” cull.

Why is it being seen as a power grab?

The Treasury has long been regarded as independent of the PM, so Johnson’s demand that Javid sack his advisors has raised eyebrows.

“A strong Treasury really matters because it asks different questions and has to be able to say ‘no’ to government departments and No. 10,” reports the Financial Times, which describes this week’s cabinet reshuffle as “a blatant power grab”.

When Javid refused to accede to Johnson’s proposal, it set up a “remarkable power play in which the prime minister had to choose between Mr Cummings, who wants to run the entire government from a control centre in No. 10, and his chancellor”, the newspaper says.

After apparently opting for Cummings, the PM chose the inexperienced Rishi Sunek to replace Javid in the senior role.

The drama about Javid grabbed the headlines, but there were additional signs of a centralisation of power in Downing Street. Johson also used the reshuffle to begin moves to merge the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, as well as promoting loyalist Suella Braverman to attorney general.

Indeed, The Telegraph describes the reshuffle as “the biggest political power grab of modern times”. The Daily Express agrees that “iron man” Johnson has “consolidated his grip on government”.

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What next?

The new cabinet line-up represents a significant victory for Cummings following signs that the man dubbed a “career psychopath” by David Cameron was falling out of favour in Downing Street.

But Johnson may prove to have less cause for celebration, warn some commentators. 

The Spectator’s Stephen Daisley says: “I’m not so sure [Johnson] hasn’t done his government some longer-term structural mischief. Chancellors are very useful to a prime minister, and very useful to good governance.”

The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein predicts that the bid to centralise power in Downing Street may face further opposition, as “the Treasury has shown repeatedly that it is not easily brought to heel”.

“Even if the new chancellor does not have his own special advisers, he will have his own department, his own departmental position, his own department’s interests and his own status,” notes Finklestein, a Conservative member of the House of Lords.

Fellow Times writer Philip Collins argues that the reshuffle “shows weakness” at the “heart of No. 10”. 

“It is always telling when a prime minister goes out of his way to appoint the C-team,” Collins writes. “One of the temperamental traits that will make Mr Johnson a weak premier is that, like many people prone to displays of bravura, he is tormented by the fear that he is not up to the job.”

Meanwhile, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has defended his boss’s push for greater control of the Treasury.

“It is right that there’s a coordinated economic function between the Treasury and No. 10 which will enable them to work together as closely as possible to deliver the promises made in the general election,” he told the BBC’s Breakfast show.

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