LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson began a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday in a bid to revitalize a government that now appears to be declining in popularity.
Three high ministers, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, Robert buckland, the justice secretary, and Robert jenrick, the secretary for housing, communities and local government, confirmed they had been removed from their posts, posting on Twitter that it had been a privilege to serve in government.
Much of the speculation about cabinet changes in recent weeks has focused on Foreign Minister Dominic Raab, whose position has been seen as fragile after much criticism of his handling of the evacuation from Afghanistan. His position was further undermined by his decision to delay his return from vacation as the Taliban took control of Kabul.
Downing Street confirmed the reshuffle in a statement but provided no further details. “The Prime Minister will today carry out a reshuffle to put in place a strong and united team to better rebuild after the pandemic,” said a spokesperson.
A reshuffle gives Mr Johnson the chance to reshape the upper echelons of his government ahead of a party conference next month in which he will try to deliver a clearer post-Covid political agenda. But with the number of coronavirus cases still high, the government is also bracing for the possibility of an increase in hospitalizations in the fall and winter.
On Tuesday, Mr Johnson outlined his plans to tackle the virus as winter approaches, saying Britain will offer vaccine boosters to people aged 50 and over, and the first injections to children of 12 to 15 years old. His government is determined to avoid an additional lockdown but could resort to measures such as mask warrants if infections increase.
After a successful start to Britain’s vaccination program earlier this year, Mr Johnson’s Tories have surged in opinion polls, but that lead now appears to be fading away. Last week Mr Johnson took the gamble by breaking a campaign pledge not to raise taxes so he could allocate more money to health and social services.
Critics have also complained about a lack of clarity on the government’s main national promise to “level up” – that is, to bring prosperity to economically disadvantaged regions.
As education secretary, Mr Williamson had come under heavy criticism for presiding over a crisis in school exam results last year. Mr Jenrick, as housing secretary, came under criticism after approving a real estate project involving a Conservative Party donor, and was in charge of a project to ease restrictions on building houses in England which was unpopular among some Conservative lawmakers. Mr. Buckland’s tenure has been much more fluid, but his departure frees up a position within the firm for further moves.
But so far Mr Johnson had been hesitant to move or fire members of a top-tier squad that had initially been chosen largely from among his own Brexit supporters and advocates, which Mr Johnson had made himself the champion.
Since his landslide victory in the December 2019 general election, Mr Johnson has made few changes to his cabinet, most notably in February 2020, when Sajid Javid resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer after refusing to agree to restrictions its right to hire its own advisers.
Mr Javid’s post went to Rishi Sunak, who has become a government figurehead and a potential successor to Mr Johnson. However, Mr Javid returned to cabinet earlier this year as Health Secretary when his predecessor, Matt Hancock, was forced to step down from that post in June.