Sunak’s cabinet: More a government of all the factions than all the talents

New British prime minister opts for continuity and experience in his secretary appointments

Following his uncertain, halting start after winning the Tory leadership contest on Monday, Rishi Sunak laid down a strong marker for the shape and direction of his cabinet in the hours after he accepted King Charles’s invitation to form a government.

On Monday, Sunak’s short speech delivered at Conservative headquarters was robotic and wooden. In contrast, his first speech as prime minister, delivered outside the front door of 10 Downing Street, was sure-footed and did not pull punches. Employing a slightly subdued tone, he left nobody in any doubt that after the chaos and turbulence of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss his administration would be competent and stable, would have integrity, and would not be afraid to make difficult decisions.

His words of praise for Truss were also condemnatory. “She was not wrong to want to improve growth. It is a noble aim. I admired her restlessness to create change but some mistakes were made, not borne by ill will or bad intentions, quite the opposite in fact. [But they were] mistakes nonetheless.”

Then he set out his own stall in trying to face down what he called a profound economic crisis: “I will place economic stability and confidence at the heart of this government’s agenda. This will mean difficult decisions to come.”


The first test of that was Sunak’s new cabinet. He had told Tory MPs that the party must “unite or die” and the suggestion leading up to the announcement was that he was determined to have a broad-based government, based on competence rather than loyalty.

With the party, it was portrayed as a “government of all the talents”. In reality, it was a government of all the factions (and there are many) in his 357-strong parliamentary party.

The new prime minister went to the House of Commons and fired 10 of Liz Truss’s ministers including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brandon Lewis, and chief whip Wendy Morton.

The afternoon saw a familiar drama of intrigue played out in Downing Street. Prospective ministers ran the gauntlet of hundreds of journalists in the short walk to Number 10. News about who got what trickled out all afternoon.

As the identities of senior ministers were revealed, it quickly became apparent that it would be a cabinet of continuity and experience, with all shades of the party represented. These included figures from the right such as Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch; one-nation Tories; Boris Johnson supporters such as Chris Heaton-Harris and Nadhim Zahawi; his defeated leadership rival Penny Mordaunt; and Truss’s closest confidante, Therese Coffey.

There was an abundance of continuity in his cabinet choices. Chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary James Cleverly and defence secretary Ben Wallace (both of whom supported Johnson) all retained their jobs, and Braverman was reinstated as home secretary, only six days after she resigned from that position. Penny Mordaunt is another who kept her role. She remains as leader of the House of Commons, while Badenoch stays as international trade secretary.

Braverman’s appointment somewhat sullied Sunak’s promise of a government of honesty and integrity on its very first day. She had resigned from that position because of a breach of the ministerial code. She used her Gmail account to send sensitive material to a political aide. That was a serious matter.

Sunak seemed prepared to airbrush that out. There was an obvious reason. He and his team lobbied Braverman continuously during the leadership debate. Her decision to side with him rather than with Johnson was a key turning point in the contest, given she is regarded as the leading figure of the right in the party.

It had all the hallmarks of a backroom political deal: her reinstatement would be the quid pro quo for her support.

That raised more than eyebrows. The Labour party immediately pounced on the reappointment, claiming it was an early indication that Sunak’s government will not live up to its lofty rhetoric of honesty and propriety.

Of course, many of Sunak’s closest allies also came back in from the cold having lost their positions under Johnson and Truss. The former foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is the new deputy prime minister and minister for justice; Oliver Dowden was appointed as cabinet office minister (the government “fixer”); Mel Stride has become works and pensions secretary; and another big beast in the party, Michael Gove, returns as levelling up secretary. That’s the role of ensuring that the less prosperous north of the country are not left behind. The Tories won a swathe of so-called “Red Wall” seats in the 2019 election and the party needs to retain as many of them as possible in the next election.

Heaton-Harris’s reappointment as Northern Ireland secretary was generally welcomed. He was only appointed in September and had impressed in his first weeks in the job, despite having little time to get his feet under the table. His first decision is likely to be an onerous one — calling an election for the Stormont Assembly on Friday.