A fresh start for Government

17 September 2021

The lifting of most remaining COVID restrictions in July signalled the beginning of a new phase for the Government. 

After 18 months spent in crisis mode fighting a pandemic and its effects on society and the economy, the focus is shifting to delivering the commitments of the 2019 General Election. As part of this reset, this week the PM carried out his first government reshuffle.

Many briefs remain firmly in safe, already tested hands. Rishi Sunak as Chancellor will continue the difficult task of balancing the need for responsible financial decisions with restarting the economy after the pandemic and giving adequate resources to the NHS and the education system. Home Secretary Priti Patel remains in charge of border policy and fighting crime. Liz Truss, highly rated and trusted by the PM and popular within the Conservative Party thanks to her solid performance as International Trade Secretary, is the new Foreign Secretary. She takes over from Dominic Raab, who has now been appointed as the new Justice Secretary and given the role of [remains] Deputy Prime Minister.

For many other departments, the PM and his close advisors deemed the experience and knowledge of the incumbents much more valuable than a fresh pair of eyes or a headline-catching change at the helm. Business (with Kwasi Kwarteng), Transport (with Grant Shapps), Health (with Sajid Javid, only appointed in June), Defence (with Ben Wallace), Work and Pensions (with Therese Coffey, previously Environment Minister at DEFRA), as well as the three devolved nations’ offices (with Alister Jack for Scotland, Brandon Lewis for Northern Ireland, and Simon Hart for Wales) are all briefs that are dealing with sensitive issues and projects that would be hindered by any changes at the top: the post-Brexit transition for businesses, redesigning the UK’s connectivity network, the phasing out of COVID subsidies, and the very different issues with the three devolved administrations.

George Eustice stays on as Secretary for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs with a strengthened team: Lord Goldsmith and Rebecca Pow remain in their posts, while Victoria Prentis is promoted to Minister of State. They are all joined by former health minister Jo Churchill, whose responsibilities are still to be made public. While Jo Churchill’s appointment is likely to see some rearranging of portfolios in Defra, Lord Goldsmith has taken a strong personal interest in all matters forestry, both domestic and overseas, so he is likely to continue as the key contact for Confor. Alok Sharma, the UK’s COP26 President, also retains his role with only weeks before the climate conference begins.

The changes in the Cabinet team reveal the policy areas that the PM has identified as priorities; these will be crucial in delivering the Government’s programme of creating more and better opportunities for all parts of the country, the so-called “Levelling Up” strategy. After the failures of the education system during COVID, the Department for Education has a new Secretary of State in Nadhim Zahawi, who proved his competence in tackling thorny issues with the delivery of the vaccine rollout. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, long-standing supporter of Confor and the sector, is the new International Trade Secretary, a crucially important role for the post-Brexit UK.

The most significant appointment is perhaps that of Michael Gove as the new Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Gove is the most experienced politician in Government today, having held Cabinet positions since 2010; he is widely considered a very sharp-thinker and strategist who has always shown considerable enthusiasm and reforming zeal in all his positions. In his two years as Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, he refocused the department’s work on addressing climate change and set out strategies, like the 25 Year Environment Plan, that are still shaping rural affairs’ policy. His main concern will be to define what “Levelling Up” the UK means and how it is achieved; this is after all the PM’s top priority and the one policy which will determine the outcome of the next election. Being also tasked with improving the planning system and housebuilding in England, he will be a key stakeholder for the forestry and timber sector as he will determine the opportunities to increase the use of alternative materials in construction and his ability to drive up the numbers of new homes being built will impact on market demand for timber. He is joined by Neil O’Brien, former Treasury advisor and author of the Northern Powerhouse strategy. Presenting a strong, evidence-based case about the sector’s role in delivering sustainable opportunities across the country will be the way to appeal to these two experienced policy makers that are always open to new, reforming ideas.

This beefing-up of the department which will deliver the key “Levelling Up” agenda, alongside a new Conservative Party chairman with a long campaigning experience (ex-Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden) shows that the Government is now focused on demonstrating and delivering their vision for the country. With three years left in his term, the PM has put together a Cabinet of reformers and fixers with a clear task in mind: preparing to win the next election (which will probably come before 2024).