Bringing back Sajid Javid is a boost for Boris Johnson – but it comes at a cost
Matt Hancock’s resignation as Health Secretary has given Boris Johnson the opportunity he has been looking for since stepping down from Dominic Cummings: a way to bring Sajid Javid back to the top spot.
The case for the return of Javid, who resigned as chancellor in February 2020, is strong: he has never failed in any department (from a Tory perspective), making him a safe choice for the Secretary of Health. This is another person in the firm who can, as one Javid admirer told me during David Cameron’s day, “reliably eat shit on the Today program without making any news ”. And bringing him back into the fold reduces the number of plausible prime ministers behind the scenes, and the sitting prime minister is always better off when there are as few candidates as possible for the top post outside of government.
An added bonus is that he has, since returning to the backbench, an almost perfect study of loyalty. As with the promotion of Alan Mak, this decision fulfills a double duty: it brings back a political advantage to the cabinet, and it signals to troubled backbenchers that the best way forward is always to ‘to be a team player, despite the advice of the prime minister’s own rebel history.
But Javid’s return is also making Tory backbench MPs nervous. Why? Because the main reason the PM made another reshuffle was to bring Javid back to the fold. Johnson is, I’m told, reluctant to make a large-scale reshuffle anytime soon: the last was a disaster that created many more enemies in the rear benches, sped up Cummings’ end of time in Downing Street and threw any number of avoidable obstacles on the government’s legislative agenda.
As Harold Macmillan wrote in his diary the day before his 1962 reshuffle, “these events are always very bad and perhaps the worst of all the duties of a prime minister.” Most prime ministers will admit they hate having to do them, and most prime ministers are better at saying ‘no’ to people than Boris Johnson.
Some Tory MPs are concerned that now he no longer has the big shiny carrot of bringing Javid back, Johnson is not going through the painful process of firing people to make room for men unhappy with the 2015 admission, or young people brilliant folks from the 2017 or 2019 Admission. Javid’s return makes the government stronger as it has a better administrator and a better political edge than yesterday. But Johnson will have to reassure Tory backbench MPs that Javid’s return doesn’t mean their hopes of becoming a junior minister are permanently frozen.