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Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle tells us he doesn’t fully control the Tory party

After weeks of speculation about a wide-ranging reshuffle that would present voters with the Conservative government’s 2024 election line-up, Rishi Sunak instead opted for a play-it-safe tweak of his top team.

The timing was weird – no one holds a reshuffle in August, even on the last day, unless their hand is forced, suggesting that Ben Wallace, whose resignation triggered Thursday’s minor shake-up, was impatient to leave the government.

Replacing Mr Wallace, a Boris Johnson stalwart whose popularity in the Conservative party made him virtually unsackable, with his own loyal lieutenant Grant Shapps as Defence Secretary, and promoting his former special adviser and close political ally Claire Coutinho to Energy and Net Zero, shows how little authority the Prime Minister has over the Tory party.

This is not to say Mr Shapps, who sat in Cabinet on the first day of the Conservative-led government in 2010, lacks experience, or that Ms Coutinho, the first from the 2019 intake to become a Cabinet minister, does not have the talent to run a ministerial department.

But a leader in a stronger position would have told Mr Wallace to wait a bit longer, until the start of the new term in Westminster, and triggered a full shake-up of the Cabinet where he could sack those who are not pulling their weight, promote those who are more qualified – Penny Mordaunt at Defence for example – without fearing they might overshadow him.

Instead, ministers will go into Tory conference in October unsure how long they will be in their current roles before an expected fuller reshuffle later this year.

Having Conservative ministers wandering round the Midland Hotel in Manchester in a holding pattern doesn’t exactly engender loyalty or enthusiasm to fight for a fifth term.

Conservative MPs are already quitting in their droves – the latest total is nearly 50 – leaving the Tory ranks low on morale to fight the next election.

Mr Sunak’s decision to tack to the right in the run-up to the election – watering down his net zero agenda and focus on policies on immigration and crime – has alienated more centrist Conservative MPs. Green Tories are hoping that Ms Coutinho’s appointment will restore some sense on green issues, but she is unlikely to have the freedom to be radical so close to the election.

Reshuffles, if executed well, can re-energise governments and boost prime ministers. Mr Sunak has to hope that he has the authority to conduct one of those before he goes to the country next year.

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