LONDON (Reuters) – Boris Johnson forced the resignation of his finance minister on Thursday for refusing to toe the line, a sign the prime minister was tightening his control in a government reshuffle designed to deliver his vision for Britain beyond Brexit.
Johnson, who had wanted to minimise any disruption from his long-planned cabinet revamp, quickly replaced Sajid Javid with his deputy Rishi Sunak, a loyal supporter of the prime minister who is often put before the media to sell government policy.
Johnson’s team had carefully choreographed the reshuffle, presenting it as an opportunity to foster new talent, particularly among women, while also rewarding loyalists.
But the finance minister’s resignation – which some commentators said might have been sought by Johnson’s team all along – added to a sense that the prime minister would brook no dissent.
“He has turned down the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister),” a source close to Javid said.
The source said Johnson had told Javid he would have to sack his advisers and replace them with advisers from the prime minister’s Downing Street office. “The Chancellor said no self-respecting minister would accept those terms.”
Sunak, a former Goldman Sachs banker who is married to the daughter of an Indian billionaire, is seen by many Conservatives as a safe pair of hands who will easily get on board with Johnson’s agenda for a post-Brexit Britain.
David Jones, a former Brexit minister, described Sunak as “very bright” and an “excellent choice”.
The pound and bond yields rose on the expectation that Sunak’s appointment would pave the way for a more expansionary budget next month.
Johnson has promised to reduce the wealth and opportunity gap between parts of Britain by channelling investment into northern and central England, where he won the votes of many traditional supporters of the main opposition Labour Party.
Johnson had not been expected to change the biggest-hitting posts in his government. But even the smaller changes in the lower ranks of government offered some insight into how he wanted to tighten his grip on power.
His sacking of Northern Ireland minister Julian Smith, who only a month ago had helped broker the restoration of a government in the British province, prompted criticism from politicians north and south of the border with Ireland.
Smith, who had been in charge of parliamentary discipline for Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, was the first minister to lose his job in the reshuffle. He was joined by business minister Andrea Leadsom and environment minister Theresa Villiers.
Ultra-loyal Alok Sharma, a former minister for international development, was appointed as the new minister for business and also the head of the COP26 climate change summit in Scotland in November, due to be attended by world leaders.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan was promoted to minister for international development, while other big departments – such as foreign, home affairs, trade and health – kept their ministers.
It was Javid’s move which shook up the ‘business as usual’ look that Johnson had wanted to portray.
Downing Street aides had previously played down suggestions, based on Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ well-publicised desire to see a radical reorganisation of government, that there would be major changes.
But it was clear that loyalty mattered to Johnson to be able to deliver his agenda and meet the promises he made in the run-up to the Dec. 12 election, in which he won a large majority.
Opposition politicians said Javid’s resignation had shown the reshuffle to be a mess.
“This is a historical record. A government in chaos within weeks of an election,” said John McDonnell, Labour’s finance spokesman.
Additional reporting by William James; editing by Gareth Jones and Stephen Addison