By Sunder Katwala
Director of British Future
THIS was expected to be a quiet reshuffle. So, the brutal Valentine’s Eve political power play which saw chancellor Sajid Javid crash out of government took Westminster by surprise.
Javid had been the only Cabinet minister to receive a public commitment that he would keep his role. “I give you a categorical assurance that Sajid Javid will be my chancellor,” Boris Johnson told the CBI in November. But promises made before the General Election evaporated with the scale of the Conservative majority. Javid resigned, technically, but this was a form of constructive dismissal. Javid saw the terms of his reappointment as an offer that he had to refuse; knowing that accepting the demand to fire his team would be portrayed as a humiliating demotion, leaving him as ‘chancellor in name only’. His parting shot, that ‘no self-respecting chancellor’ could have accepted, sets a test for his successor Rishi Sunak.
Javid’s rise as the son of a Pakistani taxi driver to the top table of British politics had been a powerful symbol of the potential of British meritocracy. It may have taken a century for the first British Asian to take office, but Johnson found himself appointing a second within just seven months, as chief secretary Sunak was appointed to replace his former boss at Number 11 Downing Street.
Ethnic diversity is the new normal in British politics. Now that we have had two Asian home secretaries and two Asian chancellors, the novelty factor of breaking the glass ceiling is reduced. The Javid-Johnson clash falls into the tradition of battles between Number 10 and Number 11, from Thatcher and Lawson to Blair and Brown. The question asked of Sunak will not be what it means to be the first Hindu chancellor, rather how he will establish his own authority in the role ahead of his imminent first Budget.
Johnson’s first Cabinet had been the most ethnically diverse in British history. Johnson’s second Cabinet is notable for its strongly British Indian presence: Alok Sharma becomes business secretary, with lead responsibility for the major climate summit being hosted by the UK in Glasgow this December; Priti Patel retains her role as home secretary; and Suella Fernandes attends Cabinet as the new attorney-general.
Yet the new Cabinet’s ethnic diversity is now less diverse. All four ethnic minority Cabinet members are now of British Indian heritage, compared to three of the six ethnic minority ministers attending Cabinet before the reshuffle. Energy minister Kwasi Kwarteng and former party chair James Cleverly stay in government but will no longer attend Cabinet, with Cleverly among several new Foreign Office/International Development ministers as those departments evolve towards a likely formal merger.
The strong British Indian presence in government will be an asset for the UK-India trading relationship – but the government should play that hand with care. The Times of India reported a Cabinet of four PIOs “after the departure of the Pakistan-origin Javid”. There are also risks for the Johnson government at home, given some efforts to stir up a partisan clash between different south Asian minorities at the last election. The early electoral evidence suggests these were not especially successful: British Indians in the UK hold a range of political views, with scepticism among younger generations about whether India and Pakistan are on the ballot paper in a British General Election.
What next for Javid? His pinball-like career around the Cabinet, holding five Cabinet posts in six years, illuminates the extraordinary volatility of British politics which has crammed in three General Elections, three prime ministers and all of the Brexit referendum fallout in that period. Javid was Secretary of State, successively, for business, for culture and for communities, before the Windrush scandal catapulted him to his first great office of state, as home secretary. His well-received bid for the Conservative leadership last summer took him to the Treasury. The frustration will be that he got to start several important jobs without the time to deliver. In two years as communities secretary, he laid the foundations for our first national integration strategy. One year as home secretary, after Windrush, put down some early markers for a postBrexit immigration system that would be more open to students and skills. His role as chancellor ended before he had the chance to make the major investments of his first budget.
Javid will mark a decade in parliament this Spring but has little prior experience of being a backbench MP. He now joins former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt as the biggest figure on the government backbenchers. His challenge will be to find a voice that is distinct but not disloyal, on the big questions for this Parliament over the months and years ahead. Few have experienced a more dizzying rollercoaster of political highs and lows. The question for the future is how the unpredictable wheel of political fortune may spin again.