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Rishi Sunak’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ Cabinet

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LONDON — If his key appointments are any indication, the Rishi Sunak era in Britain could actually be … kind of dull.

The new U.K. leader reappointed existing ministers, brought back old hands and largely kept critics on side as he sought to reassure nervous markets, allies and enemies that the U.K. is no longer a hotbed of chaos.

But the prime minister did, at least, have room to take revenge on a number of his most vocal detractors, and refused to offer any kind of promotion to his defeated leadership rival, Penny Mordaunt.

Sunak entered No. 10 Downing Street Tuesday with a promise to “fix” the “mistakes” made by his predecessor Liz Truss, after her radical economic prospectus spooked financial markets and helped jack up U.K. borrowing costs — swiftly bringing down her government amid bitter Tory recriminations and sparking a second Tory leadership race in two months.

Emerging from the wreckage of the Conservative Party, Sunak had pledged to put politics aside and “build a government that represents the very best traditions of my party.”

Nothing to see here

The biggest news of the reshuffle was that there wasn’t much news. Multiple figures who served under Sunak’s predecessor Liz Truss, including some who backed his rival Boris Johnson in the latest Conservative leadership race, kept their posts or were moved to other senior roles.

Sunak’s most important appointment was to keep Jeremy Hunt in post as chancellor, sticking by a Cabinet veteran who Truss had brought in from the cold just two weeks earlier to rip up her failed economic agenda.

James Cleverly was kept on as foreign secretary, while Ben Wallace remained as defense secretary — keeping two key ministries tasked with shaping Britain’s foreign policy intact. Chris Heaton-Harris stayed on as Northern Ireland secretary, while Nadhim Zahawi was moved from health to become the Conservative Party chairman. All four men had backed Johnson in the leadership contest last week, leaving fellow Boris supporters in the party relieved.

“At this early stage of the reshuffle it looks as if Rishi is aiming to unite the party rather than divide it,” said Tory MP and Johnson ally Michael Fabricant. “Perhaps one of the mistakes Liz Truss made was to pack the Cabinet only with her supporters. That always creates a volatile situation.”

In an eyebrow-raising move, Suella Braverman, a darling of the party’s right who made her own bid for the leadership earlier this year, returned as home secretary less than a week after being fired over a sensitive information leak. Her reappointment looked like a debt being repaid following her unexpected backing of Sunak at the weekend.

Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch and Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan, both Truss picks over the summer, kept their jobs too.

One Cabinet minister who did not back Sunak in either leadership race said the appointments were clearly a bid for unity: “He has put people in positions with a track record of delivery.”

Senior figures from other wings of the party were impressed too. “The new prime minister is clearly serious about including people from all sides of the party in his new Cabinet,” said Nicky Morgan, a former chair of the centrist One Nation Conservatives grouping in parliament and now a member of the House of Lords. “This is a very encouraging start to his term.”

Soft revenge

Others key allies of Sunak’s opponents were handed demotions, but allowed to remain in Sunak’s top team.

Thérèse Coffey, a close friend of Truss who served as her deputy prime minister and health secretary, was demoted to the environment, food and farming brief. Alok Sharma, who backed Johnson in the second race, kept his job overseeing the COP climate summits, but will no longer attend Cabinet — a clear step down.

But it was the treatment of Mordaunt, the last candidate standing against Sunak in the latest leadership race, that most ruffled feathers. She kept her relatively junior Cabinet-attending job as leader of the House of Commons, a decision seen in Westminster as a snub given widespread expectations that she was due a major promotion.

One former Cabinet minister argued the failure to promote Mordaunt looked like “an act of revenge, or small-mindedness.” Mordaunt had refused to drop out of the latest leadership race until it was clear she did not have sufficient nominations from fellow MPs to make the next round. 

Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt leaves No. 10 Downing Street following Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cabinet reshuffle | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Yet some argued the very act of keeping her in post was in itself an olive branch, while one person familiar with the discussions on her appointment said she had been offered a different role, but refused it. One of Mordaunt’s allies insisted she was pleased to keep her existing brief.

A Downing Street official insisted: “This Cabinet brings the talents of the party together. It reflects a unified party and a Cabinet with significant experience, ensuring that at this uncertain time there is continuity at the heart of government.”

But there were plenty of rewards too for key Sunak supporters. Close allies Oliver Dowden, Michael Gove and Steve Barclay were handed roles in the Cabinet Office, communities department and health department respectively, just weeks after Truss sent them all packing.

Simon Hart was made chief whip, while Gillian Keegan was promoted to the Cabinet for the first time as education secretary and Grant Shapps was moved from his week-long stint heading up the Home Office (to replace the sacked Braverman) to the business department. 

To make space for the new appointments, Sunak allowed himself a few ruthless sackings — although he did permit Cabinet ministers to technically resign to spare their blushes.

Ministers seen as close to Johnson, including Brandon Lewis and Kit Malthouse, were fired, as was Robert Buckland, who supported Sunak in the first leadership race only to shamelessly switch to Truss when it became clear she would win.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of Sunak’s most vocal critics and a cheerleader for Johnson, was also dispensed with, as well as top Truss lieutenants Ranil Jayawarenda and Simon Clarke. Rees-Mogg had once branded Sunak a “socialist” — although he hastily recanted that criticism Tuesday morning as the new PM picked his top team.

Having told the Tories at the weekend they must “Back Boris” or go “bust”, it was not enough to save him from his fate.

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