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The drama behind Rishi Sunak's accession to UK's finance minister

Treasury chief Sajid Javid abruptly resigned on a difficult day for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. While there had been tension between 10 Downing St. and Javid's Treasury, no one predicted that he would lose his job in a reshuffle that was expected to be relatively modest

By Stephen Castle
Published: Feb 14, 2020

The drama behind Rishi Sunak's accession to UK's finance ministerImage: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images

LONDON — What was expected to be a routine Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Boris Johnson took an extraordinary turn on Thursday, when the Treasury chief, Sajid Javid, abruptly resigned rather than cede some of his power over economic policy to Johnson.

The surprise departure of such a senior figure was a significant blow to Johnson; the Treasury is traditionally the most powerful department in the British government, and the chancellor of the Exchequer, who leads it, is usually the second-most important politician after the prime minister.

Rishi Sunak, 39, who as chief secretary to the Treasury had been Javid’s deputy, was named to succeed him as chancellor — a remarkable rise for a former employee of Goldman Sachs who was elected to Parliament only in 2015.

The drama unfolded on a difficult day for Johnson, as the opposition Labour Party demanded clarity about who had paid for a luxury Caribbean vacation taken by the prime minister and his partner in late December and early January.

While there had been tension between 10 Downing St. and Javid’s Treasury, no one predicted that he would lose his job in a reshuffle that was expected to be relatively modest.

But Johnson’s office insisted that Javid fire his advisers, who would be replaced by a unit of special advisers working for both Downing Street and the Treasury — though ultimately reporting to the prime minister. Javid would effectively have lost control of some of his top staff, which proved too much for him to stomach.

“I don’t believe any self-respecting minister would accept such conditions,” he said after his resignation.

Encouraged by his influential aide, Dominic Cummings, Johnson wants to control economic policy and direct resources to the north and middle of England, where voters traditionally loyal to Labour switched sides and helped elect the Conservatives.

The maneuvers underscored Johnson’s willingness to exert his power, even at the risk of losing his chancellor, following a big general election victory in December, and the sway Cummings has within the government.

Javid had been chancellor for only seven months, an unusually short period, and he leaves without delivering a budget, something he was expected to do next month.

Last year, Cummings fired one of Javid’s aides after a confrontation, and the police escorted her out of 10 Downing Street. That provoked a dispute that has evidently festered since.

Javid was already sensitive to suggestions that Downing Street was the real power behind economic policy. His enemies had nicknamed him “Chino” — short for “Chancellor in name only.”

While there is a history of tension between prime ministers and chancellors, resignations are rare, and usually spell trouble. At the least, Javid, who contested the Conservative Party leadership last year, could emerge as a critic of the prime minister.

But his resignation also allows Johnson, who took office in July, to concentrate more power in 10 Downing Street. Johnson has made big spending promises that would reverse a decade of austerity under previous Conservative governments, a shift that makes some in his party uncomfortable.

His reshuffle is a chance to freshen the Conservatives’ profile and to give the sense of a government moving forward after three years of Brexit paralysis.

The first changes came Thursday morning, with Julian Smith, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, saying he would leave the government. His departure was also something of a surprise, given that he had gained widespread praise for helping end the political stalemate that had left Northern Ireland without a regional government for three years.

Over the course of several hours, top politicians from a range of government ministries took to Twitter to announce that they would be leaving, including Geoffrey Cox, who as attorney general gave legal advice that complicated the efforts of Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor, to leave the European Union.

Esther McVey, the housing minister, made it clear that she would have liked to remain in her position but said Johnson would have her “support from the backbenches,” as a lawmaker without a government ministry. Andrea Leadsom confirmed on Twitter that she would leave as business secretary. And Theresa Villiers said she had been fired as environment secretary, writing on Facebook that “what the prime minister giveth, the prime minister taketh away.”

Chris Skidmore, the minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation, greeted his dismissal with a Twitter post saying he had “got a promotion” that will allow him to spend more time with his new baby.

The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and the home secretary, Priti Patel, hung on to their positions, as did Michael Gove, a figure whose fate in the reshuffle had been subject to speculation. He might have hoped for promotion but remained as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a sort of fixer across the government.

Liz Truss will be secretary of state for trade and will lead trade negotiations with non-European Union countries. Negotiations with the EU on post-Brexit trade will be conducted by David Frost, an adviser in Downing Street.

The government had earlier sought to play down predictions of a “Valentine Day’s political massacre,” as Johnson put his stamp on a leadership team that must negotiate a Brexit trade deal with the EU while confronting big domestic challenges.

Earlier this week the prime minister gave the go-ahead to a high-speed rail link connecting London to cities in the middle and north of England and costing more than $130 billion.

That project had been criticized by Johnson’s adviser, Cummings, who has a reputation for a pugilistic approach and argued for big changes in the government and a culling of Cabinet ministers.

Those changes did not materialize, but the departure of Javid suggests that Cummings retains significant clout. The new Cabinet is scheduled to meet for the first time on Friday but, as Johnson put the finishing touches to his new government, there were calls for a formal inquiry into his recent vacation.

Although he declared accepting hospitality worth 15,000 pounds (almost $20,000), it remains unclear who actually paid for it.

A businessman, David Ross, says he “facilitated accommodation” for Johnson on the island of Mustique valued at 15,000 pounds — a formulation that could suggest that the vacation villa was part of a timeshare facility, but one that left critics unimpressed.

“The public deserves to know who is paying for their prime minister’s jaunts,” said the Labour lawmaker Jon Trickett.

©2019 New York Times News Service