In this article, Chris Smith (Managing Director and Founder of the Centre for the New Midlands) provides some personal reflections on the recent Cabinet reshuffle and provides some food for thought on the future of Devolution.
Cabinet reshuffle: Unpopularity at the polls ends Ministerial careers
On 17th September, the Prime Minister reshuffled his cabinet after months of speculation that the axe would fall on some ministers who were perceived to be failing to deliver on the ‘people’s priorities’. Out went Gavin Williamson (Education); Robert Buckland (Justice) and perhaps surprisingly, Robert Jenrick (Housing, Communities and Local Government) given the prominent role he had played throughout the pandemic and the increasingly raised profile of his department in recent years. Jenrick had appeared to have survived the controversy of 2020 regarding his role in overturning a decision which enabled a £1 billion development led by Richard Desmond to proceed, a day before a community levy would have come into force potentially costing the developer in excess of £40 million, however evidently not. The reshuffle also brought about a move for Dominic Raab (Foreign Office) who became the Deputy Prime Minister and who also replaced Buckland at the Justice department. The Government has denied this is a demotion for Raab, but losing his position from one of the four Great Offices might suggest otherwise.
The reshuffle effectively removed from Government some of the ministers who had polled consistently badly in opinion polls, both within the Conservative Party and the public. However, it also provided the Prime Minister with an opportunity to promote those who had been working on delivery of the Government’s agenda, such as Liz Truss (International Trade) who replaced Raab to become the Conservative Party’s first female foreign secretary, as well as Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford upon Avon’s very own MP) who had delivered the vaccine rollout and was rewarded with the leadership of the Department of Education. The ‘Minister for Shakespeare’ is one of the West Midlands region’s highest profile parliamentarians in Westminster, with Christopher Pincher (MP for Tamworth) also retaining his role as Minister of State for Housing.
The reshuffle failed to see any promotions into government for any of the 2019 intake, bar Amanda Solloway, who joined the Whips’ Office and who had been an MP between 2015-2017. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the disruption to the workings of government that none of this intake has been promoted into any of the ministerial roles, but this could be an area to look out for in future reshuffles, particularly any changes in personnel ahead of the inevitable focus on the Red Wall seats at the next general election.
Cabinet reshuffle: Gove promoted but direction for Devolution unclear
The move of Gove into the rebadged ministry of ‘Levelling Up, Housing and Communities’ (previously ‘Housing, Communities and Local Government) is an interesting one on several levels. Gove is certainly regarded as one of, if not the most ‘capable’ Minister across Government with a track record of reform and delivery wherever he has been, ie Education, Justice, Brexit campaigner. He has, of course, built up many critics across politics and the public for his work across government, but he understands government and does have a reputation for getting things done. The Levelling Up agenda is ‘the’ theme of the ‘post’ Brexit, ‘post’ pandemic Johnson government and the fact that the Prime Minister has placed Gove in charge of the portfolio (particularly given their personal history), demonstrates that this agenda will grow across government and the importance of the department to its delivery.
With this in mind, the rebadging of the department may also give some clues as to how this Government intends to deliver its levelling up agenda. Not only have those two key words been inserted into the ‘brand’, but out goes the words ‘Local Government’. One might argue that this change in title of the Ministry is an indication of how the Government sees the delivery of this key aspect of their manifesto. How much of the Levelling Up agenda will be left to local and regional politicians/authorities to deliver? This looks very much like a Whitehall led, top down approach to the Levellling Up agenda could be unfolding, however, the Spending Review and Budget scheduled for 27th October and subsequent ‘Levelling Up and Recovery’ White Paper will hopefully shed greater light on the Government’s plans for how this key policy will be delivered.
Back in April 2021, we hosted a webinar with Professor Martin Reeves, Chief Executive of Coventry City Council who shared his thoughts and experiences of leading a city out of a pandemic, but also gave some perspectives on the role of local government throughout the crisis and what the future may hold. Rewatch the webinar by clicking here
Labour Party Conference: “The most radical programme of devolution our country has ever seen”
At the Labour Party Conference in Brighton (25-29th September), Shadow Communities secretary Steve Reed laid out his vision for what a Labour government would do to ‘reset the relationship between local and national government’.
In his speech to Conference, Reed promised the “most radical programme of devolution our country has ever seen” if Labour wins the next election and emphasised the need for Labour to learn from the best of what it has delivered when it is in power at a local level.
Reed stated that Labour would do “for communities and local services what we did for the NHS and put them beyond the reach of any future Conservative government by placing so much control in local people’s hands the Conservatives won’t be able to take it away again.
With Boris Johnson’s brutally candid remarks about the challenges of devolution during his speech in July 2021 in which he stated “the loony left remains pretty loony and we need accountability” and Reed’s comments re local people somehow not potentially being Conservatives, it seems like both of the main parties have a fair bit to learn about the true concept of devolution. The realpolitik of giving power to others – and potentially others hundreds of miles away – is a big hurdle for the country’s politicians to overcome; whether they are interested in the jump remains to be seen.
Chris is the Managing Director of the Centre for the New Midlands, founding the organisation in January 2020. Chris has over 15 years of experience working within the Higher Education sector, with extensive experience in stakeholder engagement; fundraising; student recruitment and management information. He has a deep interest in regional and national politics, as well as the impact that philanthropy can have on driving positive change.
Chris began his career within Advancement in 2010 at Coventry University, before joining the University of Westminster as Director of Development and Alumni Relations in 2016. Chris was promoted to lead the University of Westminster’s External Relations directorate, overseeing the institution’s alumni engagement and development programmes; alongside the delivery of its Short Courses’ provision and Corporate Partnerships’ strategy. Chris has led international award-winning teams and takes great pride in building strong and effective teams throughout his career. Chris co-founded the AlSadi Changing Lives Programme which over the past decade has provided hundreds of students from the UK with fully funded volunteer programmes to Jordan, working with some of the nation’s finest third sector organisations.
Chris has previously worked within student recruitment and strategic planning as well as working within the Home Office’s Immigration and Nationality Directorate. Chris is also a former Students’ Union President and has previously worked for the Saga Group plc. Chris is proud to have served as a member of the NSPCC Business Board in Coventry and Warwickshire for over two years and as a Trustee of the University of Westminster Students’ Union. Chris is an avid Tottenham Hotspur supporter and a ‘Man of Kent’ by birth but an ‘adopted’ Coventrian having lived in the city since 2003.