There’s nothing quite like reshuffle day to get the politicos amongst us out of bed in the morning – in the words of Pamela from Gavin and Stacey: “It’s the drama Mick, I love it” – and today’s manoeuvres have delivered an excellent dose of political theatre in Westminster.
There were definitely winners and losers but, above all, a lot of questions are still to be answered when it comes to protecting the natural world.
A stronger cross government approach on climate?
By far the most unexpected news of the day was the appointment of Rishi Sunak as chancellor. Outgoing Chancellor Sajid Javid refused to allow Number 10 to choose his advisers – the latest of many squabbles between the Downing Street neighbours – so he resigned instead. Sajid Javid is the first chancellor not to have delivered a budget since Randolph Churchill, and he held the shortest term in the Treasury since Ian McLeod in 1970.
Rishi has risen quickly in the ranks of the Conservative Party with ConservativeHome anointing him “the next prime minister” earlier in the year. We don’t know a huge amount about his environmental credentials but he was a member of the EFRA Select Committee for two years when he was first elected to parliament in 2015. Bloomberg was quick off the mark in writing up a strong profile whilst, for those with a bit more time, Nick Robinson recently interviewed the new chancellor on his podcast. Clearly required listening for anyone interested to see how the finances are going to be managed over the coming years.
We’ll have to wait and see what comes out of the Treasury over the coming months, but the PM’s firm grip could prove useful in achieving the cross government approach to preventing climate breakdown we know is sorely needed.
We began the day by learning that Therese Villiers was out of a job, making her tenure one of the shortest lived stints as environment secretary in the past 50 years, but it took until late afternoon before we learned that George Eustice was taking over the Defra brief. Eustice is unlikely to prove as strong a champion for the environment as his predecessor-before-one Michael Gove, but he knows the Defra brief very well and has spoken out in defence of strong environmental and animal protections in the farming system. It looks likely that Theresa Villiers will keep him on his toes from the backbenches.
The road to Glasgow
The rumours of a revival of the energy and climate change department came to naught, to the likely dismay of those wanting to see the climate crisis get a bit more airtime around the cabinet table. But we do finally have clarity on who is in charge of COP26, after a fairly shambolic couple of weeks of uncertainty.
The business, energy and industrial strategy brief goes to Alok Sharma, along with COP presidency. Many have responded by asking, ‘Who’s Alok Sharma?’, a question quickly answered by the Google-proficient. He’s definitely aware of the climate crisis (see his tweet yesterday), reportedly making it a priority in his work at DFID, though a few eyebrows have been raised about his climate voting record. Sharma also spoke on behalf of the UK government at the United National Climate Action summit last year, so he’s not coming to the brief completely cold.
This appointment has proved that reshuffle gossip is rarely correct; if you’d read the papers this week, it was definitely going to be Michael Gove, Zac Goldsmith or Kwasi Kwarteng. Meanwhile, ex-COP President Claire O’Neill continues to offer brutal commentary from the sidelines, but she has welcomed the appointment of Sharma, tweeting, “Alok is a very good person who I am sure will get to grips quickly with the challenge.” There’s definitely reason to be cautiously optimistic about him holding the COP presidency, but it’s hard to see how he is the ‘big hitter’ promised by Number 10. The real question is whether he has the clout to drive forward the climate agenda across government and give COP26 the diplomatic gravitas it urgently needs.
Finally, Anne Marie-Trevelyan takes over the International Development brief (the fourth DFID secretary of state in nine months). She was active in opposing the new coal mine in her Northumberland constituency, so her climate credentials (at least on first glance) are good, albeit that a few questions have been raised about her wider views on the development agenda.
So … what now?
In many ways, our job remains the same as it did this morning. We are pushing for bold and radical climate action from the UK government in 2020. On Tuesday this week, we hosted Michael Gove, who continues in his post as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, at our ‘Countdown to COP26’ conference. He was clear that the UK has a responsibility to lead the world on climate change. But if Boris Johnson – along with his new colleagues around the cabinet table – is really serious about the climate crisis, the first and urgent task early this year must be to invest in the solutions that can be implemented immediately.
Last week, the hottest ever temperature was recorded in Antarctica: a not-so-cool 20oC. This government reshuffle is signalling a new start, with space for new ideas. And the biggest one has to be transformative climate action by the country which this year has the enormous task of leading the world to do the same. Anything less will lead to international humiliation and failure for the UK on the diplomatic front, at the point when it needs to be showcasing its global outlook and connections, and the very clear and present danger of worsening global climate impacts with no solutions in sight.
For more information on the five policies that can be implemented this year to get the UK on track to net zero, see our Acting on net zero now report.