When Sue Gray pointed to dysfunction in Downing Street as one cause of the party culture that had developed in No 10 during the pandemic, Boris Johnson told MPs: “I get it, and I’ll fix it.”
But Tuesday’s mini-reshuffle, promoting ultra-loyalist MPs who have battled to save the prime minister’s skin in recent days, and creating the post of “Brexit opportunities minister”, hardly gave the impression of a fresh start.
Taken together with allegations about the lobbying efforts of his new director of communications, Guto Harri, the shake-up has perpetuated the sense that Johnson values loyalty above all else – and takes at best a relaxed approach to propriety and “chumocracy” in government.
All the moves at cabinet level involved middle-aged white men, causing the overhaul to be described as a “he-shuffle”.
Mark Spencer, the widely criticised chief whip whose team has been accused of threatening to cut resources from rebels’ constituencies, will now be leader of the House of Commons – a role that involves overseeing aspects of the parliamentary standards system.
The Conservative MP William Wragg has said whips’ alleged threats “would seem to constitute blackmail” and has discussed them with the Metropolitan police.
Spencer has also been implicated in claims by the former transport minister Nusrat Ghani that she was told her “Muslimness” had been a problem after she was sacked in 2020.
Mark Spencer, who was widely criticised as chief whip, will now become leader of the House of Commons. Photograph: Mark Thomas/Rex/Shutterstock
Spencer has admitted being the whip whose alleged comments Ghani was referring to – though has insisted he did not make them. A Cabinet Office investigation is under way but no terms of reference for it have been published.
Far from Johnson sidelining Spencer while these contentious claims are examined, he has handed him a more public-facing role, speaking for the government once a week at the dispatch box, at business questions – a platform his predecessor, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has used to advance his views on a range of subjects in recent years.
Michael Ellis, the paymaster general who has been willing to defend Johnson robustly in the Commons in recent weeks, received a promotion, taking on some Cabinet Office responsibilities as well.
And Spencer will be replaced as chief whip by Chris Heaton-Harris, part of a core team of Johnson loyalists who have operated as a “shadow whipping” operation in recent days in an attempt to prevent 54 no-confidence letters being submitted by their increasingly restive colleagues.
As Downing Street aides prepared for the reshuffle, they were forced to field questions about Harri’s lobbying efforts and past business activities – after he kicked off his tenure with the reassuring message that Johnson is “not a complete clown”.
Minutes were leaked to the Sun showing Harri asking Johnson’s former chief of staff Edward Lister which departments he should “nudge” on behalf of the Chinese tech firm Huawei, which was eventually excluded from key parts of the UK’s telecoms network from 2020. Harri, like Lord Lister, worked with Johnson in city hall when he was London mayor. No 10 said all guidance was adhered to by government officials.
Johnson has long been dogged by allegations of conflicts of interest, from taking his “friend” Jennifer Arcuri on trade missions when he was mayor, to soliciting the funding of the Tory donor David Brownlow for his costly refurbishment of the Downing Street flat.
Johnson subsequently repaid the donation from his own pocket, but Brownlow secured a meeting with Oliver Dowden, who was then the culture secretary, to discuss his pet project, a new “great exhibition”.
Harri arrived in Downing Street on Monday promising to share out mineral water in place of the “excessive consumption of alcohol” condemned in Gray’s report. But there has been precious little evidence yet of a new, more sober approach to government taking root in No 10.