Sunak cabinet make-up aims to unite a divided party

Rishi Sunak declared just hours after becoming leader of the UK Conservatives that the party, currently polling at its lowest level for a generation, needed to “unite or die”. 

Determined to end months of internecine warfare and vowing to build a “government of all the talents”, the new prime minister on Tuesday pursued a delicate balancing act as he picked his new cabinet.

A striking number of cabinet ministers remained in their post or returned to jobs they had previously held. One senior Downing Street official said three themes underpinned this decision.

“Unity by drawing on the best talent across the party. Experience — we are in serious times, we need people with experience, And continuity — given challenges we face as a nation, you’ll see continuity in some key roles,” the official said.

Sunak rewarded his closest political allies, who had stuck by him during the previous leadership race in the dog days of late August even when it became clear that he would lose to Liz Truss.

They include Dominic Raab, who returns as justice secretary and deputy prime minister, positions he last held under former prime minister Boris Johnson. Longstanding loyalist Simon Hart will become chief whip, leaving him in charge of discipline and management of MPs.

Oliver Dowden, a close friend of Sunak, returns to his previous role as Cabinet Office secretary while allies Stephen Barclay becomes health secretary while Mel Stride is appointed work and pensions secretary.

Grant Shapps, another Sunak supporter and former transport secretary who was a key plotter against Truss — although she made him home secretary in the dying days of her premiership — is now business secretary.

With other appointments Sunak reached beyond his immediate circle in an effort to demonstrate party unity. He was also determined to avoid a repeat of Truss’s mistake in stacking her cabinet with friends and acolytes, leaving Sunak followers scheming against her from the political wilderness when she entered Downing Street in early September.

“There’s no way that we are going to do what Liz did and just hand out big jobs to supporters. Rishi will go for a much more mature approach,” said one senior figure in his camp ahead of the reshuffle.

That meant offering senior positions to figures who had backed Johnson during the most recent battle for control of the party, when the former prime minister last weekend attempted a quixotic return to Downing Street.

These included James Cleverly, who stays on as foreign secretary, and Ben Wallace, who remains in the Ministry of Defence. Nadhim Zahawi, who helped bring down Johnson in July but sought to bring him back at the weekend, was appointed chair of the Conservative party and minister without portfolio.

Sunak was less magnanimous to Penny Mordaunt, who came second in the race for the leadership after Johnson dropped out. She remains in her existing role as leader of the House of Commons but she is understood to be unhappy about her lack of promotion after claiming to have had the support of at least 90 MPs in the leadership contest at the weekend.

“I’m frankly stunned” said one ally on news of her reappointment.

The balance of the new cabinet is “centrist” in terms of the modern Conservative party — if not the country at large — reflecting Sunak’s own views. He has said he wants to bring back fracking, ban onshore wind turbines, crack down hard on illegal immigration and open a new Brexit Delivery Department.

With his cabinet appointment he has tried to strike a balance between the liberal, “One Nation” caucus and the Eurosceptic, rightwing European Research Group.

Suella Braverman, an ERG member and former Tory leadership hopeful was pivotal in Sunak’s victory in the leadership campaign, swinging behind him at the weekend and effectively ending Johnson’s attempted comeback.

She was rewarded by a return to one of the highest offices of state as home secretary, where she once described her “dream” of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. She left the job only six days ago after committing a security breach by sending a policy document via private email to Sir John Hayes, another rightwing MP.

On Tuesday evening some Tory MPs questioned Braverman’s appointment given she’d broken the ministerial code.

One Nation MPs include Gillian Keegan, who has reached the cabinet for the first time as the new education secretary. Hunt, who stays in post as chancellor, is seen as a Tory “wet” — or centrist — compared with most of his party. Some Tory MPs believe that Sunak will want to replace him eventually with someone who is politically closer to him.

Despite the profession of unity, some prominent members of Truss’s cabinet were culled in the early afternoon, including former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg.

That appears to be a response to comments Rees-Mogg made in the summer when he criticised Sunak for “disloyalty” to Johnson and dubbed him “the much-lamented socialist chancellor” who had put up taxes after the Covid pandemic.

Simon Clarke, who served as levelling up secretary and backed Johnson’s leadership hopes, was replaced by Michael Gove who preceded him in the role.

Other senior figures sent to the backbenches include Jake Berry, who was party chair for just seven weeks. Berry had also criticised Sunak during the leadership race, saying: “He says one thing and does another.”

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