UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was expected to make big changes to his cabinet as his Conservative government suffered a drop in support after announcing tax hikes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The overhaul to Johnson’s top team comes ahead of a potentially tricky few months, as he continues to grapple with high levels of Covid-19 cases while promoting a recovery from the worst recession in three centuries. An overhaul will also enable the ruling Tories to present a fresh face at its annual conference early next month.
A YouGov survey for the Times earlier his month saw the Tories losing their polling lead over Labour for the first time since January.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson have both been heavily criticized in the U.K. press in recent weeks, while International Trade Secretary Liz Truss — the most popular cabinet member among Tory Party members — has been tipped for promotion.
Williamson was first to tweet his departure. Justice Secretary Robert Buckland followed to say he too is out of a job. Conservative Party Chairman Amanda Milling and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick were both seen heading toward Johnson’s House of Commons office shortly after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, suggesting they my be losing their roles.
“It’s right that we have the team in place to deal with the public’s priorities,” Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said on Wednesday. “The prime minister has always understood the importance of having a diverse cabinet.”
While Johnson has about an 80-strong majority in Parliament, his authority has been tested in recent months, including over the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and new plans rushed through the House of Commons on Tuesday to introduce a new 12-billion pound ($16.6 billion) levy to fund the National Health Service and reform social care.
He’s also faced criticism from prominent Tories over his approach to the pandemic including proposals — abandoned for now — to mandate vaccine certification to allow entry to venues including nightclubs.
Other looming challenges include ending the furlough program that’s supported workers through the pandemic and the removal of a weekly 20-pound social security uplift that’s helped poorer families through the outbreak. There’s also a key round of United Nations climate talks to host, with some in Johnson’s ruling party skeptical of pursuing a green agenda.
It’s the first major shakeup of Johnson’s top team since a botched reshuffle in February 2020 led to Sajid Javid quitting as Chancellor of the Exchequer just a month before the annual budget, with the premier hurriedly installing the inexperienced Rishi Sunak in his place.
In the event that proved an inspired promotion, with Sunak polling among the most popular ministers and gaining plaudits for various Covid support measures — so much so he’s now viewed as a leading candidate to succeed Johnson.
Sunak is due to make tough tax and spending decisions next month as he grapples to rein in a budget deficit that ballooned to a peacetime record 14% of gross domestic product in the pandemic.
Raab has been widely criticized over his handling of the Afghanistan pullout. He stayed on holiday as the Taliban took control of the country in August, and the government has acknowledged hundreds of British nationals and eligible Afghans have been left behind.
Williamson has come under fire over his handling of school exams during the pandemic, as well as preparations for the return of students after the first pandemic lockdown last year.