LONDON â€”Â Itâ€™s been a hell of a year for Boris Johnson and his Cabinet. Hell being the operative word.
The pandemic has tested every national government to the limit and the Boris Johnsonâ€™s administration has faced sustained criticism during every step of the crisis and across almost every government department.
With rumors Johnson could reshuffle his top team as early as the new year, hereâ€™s POLITICOâ€™s rundown of how U.K. Cabinet ministers fared in 2020, and how safe their jobs look if and when the prime minister decides itâ€™s time for a shake-up.
Rishi Sunak, chancellorÂ
Big year for The Most Popular Chancellor in Forty Years™. When he got the job in February, the received wisdom in Westminster was that heâ€™d be a No. 10 stooge. Now heâ€™s widely regarded as prime-minister-in-waiting. Rose to stardom in the dark days of March while fronting the Treasuryâ€™s assured response to lockdown. Â£280 billion in government spending later, he has an enormous fiscal hole to fill through spending cuts or tax rises (which might take the shine off the halo just a touch.)Â May have blotted his copy book in retrospect if his â€œEat Out to Help Outâ€ scheme is blamed in the long run for a surge in cases in the second half of the year.
Reshuffle safety rating:Â 4/5 â€” Johnson, with half an eye on his own job security, may conclude that putting Sunak in charge of many of the most â€œdifficult decisionsâ€ is the safest place for him.
Dominic Raab, foreign secretary
Led the country for a few days in April as his boss fought for his life in an intensive care bed in St Thomasâ€™ Hospital. Getting closer to figuring out what â€œGlobal Britainâ€ actually means â€”Â but not everyone has liked it. More hawkish than Johnson, Raab said the U.K. canâ€™t go back to business as usual with China after the pandemic and led diplomatic retaliation against Beijing over the Hong Kong security law. Risked a wobbly start with incoming U.S. Joe Biden administration by refusing to criticize Donald Trumpâ€™s baseless allegations of voter fraud, and then praised Trump for a hard-fought race â€” even after Bidenâ€™s win was confirmed. Is probably now well aware of the â€œfull extentâ€ of the U.K.â€™s reliance on Channel crossings.
Reshuffle safety rating: 3/5 â€” Brexit true believer. Who better in Johnsonâ€™s eyes to take the U.K. into its big â€œinternational year,â€ 2021? But some speculation he might be moved to the Cabinet Office.
Priti Patel, home secretary
Began the year accused of orchestrating a briefing campaign against her top civil servant, who resigned and is taking the government to an employment tribunal. Investigation into allegations of bullying in the Home Office concluded Patelâ€™s actions â€œon occasions â€¦ amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.â€ Boris Johnson didnâ€™t think that was a big enough deal to sack her. So the official who wrote the report decided to resign instead. Had moment of triumph/infamy (delete as appropriate) in November with passage of post-Brexit Immigration Bill into law. Found solace amid the hardships of the pandemic by observing dawn police raids. No, seriously.
Reshuffle safety rating: 2/5 â€” The bullying scandal would be a blot on any governmentâ€™s record and there have been suggestions Patel might be demoted. But Johnson has invested a lot of political capital in â€œsticking with Pritâ€ so far, so donâ€™t be surprised if she stays put.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister
The man with at least four jobs and by far the most experienced hand in a Cabinet of relative novices. In between preparing the U.K. for Brexit (in part by just putting loads of things off for six months); figuring out how the Northern Ireland Protocol will work; chairing the governmentâ€™s COVID-19 day-to-day Cabinet committee; Gove also got to wax lyrical about civil service reform (without actually doing a lot) and is ostensibly in charge of protecting the union. Has been on the more pro-restriction side of the Cabinet debate on the COVID response which, given things have tended to turn out worse than Boris Johnson expected, probably means he now looks like he was on the right side of history. Got a bit confused about Scotch eggs though.
Reshuffle safety rating: 3/5 â€”Â Plenty of speculation that a sideways move awaits. Allies insist he has the trust of the prime minister, but you wonder whether Johnson is all that comfortable with the significant powerbase heâ€™s built up at the Cabinet Office. And, of course, the pair have history.
Matt Hancock, health secretary
Has undergone transformation from jolly, slightly ridiculous parkour enthusiast who thought there was a tech solution to everything, to wearied, battered health secretary who had to help steer the country through a terrifying pandemic. Didnâ€™t make all the right calls (that app, anyone?); and has been at the center of some of the worst allegations of â€œchumocracyâ€ amid numerous reports of government testing, PPE and other contracts (not to mention big jobs) going to Tory donors or friends of the Cabinet. But his overall strategy of sticking with tough restrictions in the expectation that vaccines and better treatments would eventually tip the balance in favor of opening up society has proved broadly right. No wonder he cried (possibly) when the first vaccine was approved.
Reshuffle safety rating: 2/5 â€”Â Has clashed with Johnson along the way on the pandemic response and there had been speculation heâ€™d be moved on. However, if the vaccine rollout goes well, his stock could rise in the new year.
Gavin Williamson, education secretary
Had to apologize to virtually everyone when it transpired that getting an algorithm to determine the life chances of teenagers â€”Â sometimes based on how good their school had been historically â€” wasnâ€™t massively popular with the public. Also had to U-turn on free school meals for the poorest children in the holidays (twice) and probably still has nightmares about Marcus Rashford. Ongoing battles with teaching unions over when and how to reopen schools safely at various stages of the pandemic continued right up until the end of 2020. Thinks the U.K. approved a coronavirus vaccine first because it is â€œa much better countryâ€ than all the other ones. Â
Reshuffle safety rating: 1/5 â€”Â Many think he was lucky to avoid the sack after the exams fiasco. May not be so lucky this time. Then again, as a former chief whip â€” a post that oversees discipline in the parliamentary party â€” he does have all the dirt on everyone. Better inside the tent?
Â Liz Truss, international trade secretary and minster for women and equalities
Sixty-three post-Brexit trade deals in the bag isnâ€™t a bad haul, even if most of them are just rollovers of what the U.K. already had as a member of the EU. Trussâ€™s Global Britain feel-good vibes have seen her propelled to the top of the approval charts among Conservative members. In her equalities brief, Truss is fast becoming the Cabinetâ€™s anti-woke warrior in chief, railing against â€œidentity politicsâ€ and hailing the decision to scrap unconscious bias training in the civil service. Hates Foucault.
Reshuffle safety rating: 3/5 â€”Â Not always a favorite in No. 10, but her standing among the members and success in getting trade deals over the line might stand her in good stead.
Alok Sharma, business secretary and COP26 president
Busy 2020 for the man tasked with shepherding the U.K.â€™s businesses through the pandemic while also, supposedly, spearheading climate diplomacy ahead of a make-or-break U.N. summit next year. Has remained relatively scandal-free (perhaps that deadpan press conference style just numbs people into submission â€¦) but has faced questions over whether heâ€™s really the right man for the COP26 job, given he has to juggle it with a major Cabinet brief. Donâ€™t ask him to sing Dolly Parton.
Reshuffle safety rating: 3/5 â€” Hasnâ€™t done much wrong in the business role, but will he hang on to the COP26 presidency, with reports suggesting several higher profile figures like former party leaders Theresa May, David Cameron or William Hague have been considered for the job?Â
Grant Shapps, transport secretary
Nearly got stuck in Spain in July after his own department decided to impose quarantine restrictions on arrivals from the country â€”Â while he was there on holiday. Granted, thatâ€™s not a great look for a transport secretary, but otherwise Shapps has emerged as one of the governmentâ€™s more assured communicators. Striking a deal with France to get the border open again after the emergence of the new variant of the coronavirus in December represented another a feather in his cap. Will also have earned brownie (brown nose?) points for taking the first round of broadcast interviews during the Dominic Cummings scandal.
Reshuffle safety rating: 4/5 â€” Helped Johnson get elected Tory leader and is seen to have done a decent job in Cabinet.
Robert Jenrick, communities secretary
Admitted he regrets sitting next to, and then exchanging texts with, Tory donor Richard Desmond at a fundraising dinner before overruling officials to give planning permission to the billionaireâ€™s Â£1 billion London property development. Jenrick has said he acted within the rules and there was no bias whatsoever. Elsewhere, his department helped achieve something pretty extraordinary with its â€œEveryone Inâ€ edict to local authorities to house rough sleepers in hotels at the height of the first wave of the pandemic. Like Gavin Williamson, had some trouble with a â€œmutant algorithmâ€ toward the end of the year, this time one that came up with house-building plans that prompted a Tory backlash and (another) U-turn.
Reshuffle safety rating: 3/5 â€”Â Appears to have weathered the Desmond scandal storm and is relied on by the government for broadcast rounds fairly frequently.
Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary
Kept a relatively low profile, other than the day he casually said the government would break international law as part of its new (since scrapped) proposals for trade across Northern Irelandâ€™s borders. But only in a â€œspecific and limited way,â€ of course.
Reshuffle safety rating: 3/5 â€” Whatâ€™s a bit of international law-breaking between friends, eh?
Ben Wallace, defense secretary
Another who has had a low profile this year, but got a big win in the fall with the announcement of a major four-year defense spending plan that will increase the budget by Â£6.5 billion in real terms by 2024.
Reshuffle safety rating: 4/5 â€”Â Was tipped for the chop at the last reshuffle in February and has done well enough to get his four-year spending boost since then. Might well get to see the plan through.
Robert Buckland, justice secretaryÂ
Managed to avoid the pandemicâ€™s impact on his area â€” the justice system â€” turning into a major scandal, which is more than can be said for many of his Cabinet colleagues. One of the few Cabinet ministers to come clean about what he really felt about the Dominic Cummings lockdown breach saga at the time, later calling the former aideâ€™s actions â€œdeeply unfortunate.â€
Reshuffle safety rating: 3/5 â€”Â Looked wobbly earlier in the year when his adviser Peter Cardwell was sacked by Cummings. Looking a bit steadier now.Â
ThÃ©rÃ¨se Coffey, work and pensions secretary
Another Cabinet minister who probably has nightmares that theyâ€™re in goal and Marcus Rashford is fast-approaching the penalty area. Threw shade at the footballer and poverty campaigner on Twitter. Didnâ€™t go well. A big year ahead with the economic impact of the pandemic likely to lead to a major rise in poverty and need for welfare support. The governmentâ€™s so-called back-to-work programs will also have to step up in a big way. Big decision due in April on whether to extend the coronavirus emergency uplift in the U.K.â€™s main benefits payment system, Universal Credit. Reported to be meeting Rashford to discuss.
Reshuffle safety rating: 2/5 â€”Â Will the PM be looking for somebody with a bit more media savvy to communicate big decisions in 2021?
George Eustice, environment secretary
Got his â€œdream jobâ€ in February. Whether he holds onto it probably depends less on what happened this year, and more on how well he handles the fallout of post-Brexit trade barriers for farmers (although heâ€™ll be relieved the trade deal with the European Union does away with potentially devastating tariffs), as well as the fallout of what is already a pretty deep sense of betrayal among the U.K.â€™s fishermen over the agreement struck on Christmas Eve. Has a very long way to go to hit the governmentâ€™s target of planting 30,000 hectares of trees by 2025.
Reshuffle safety rating: 2/5 â€” Might Boris Johnson seek a fisheries fall guy?
Alister Jack, Scotland secretary
Most notable this year for telling the Scottish National Partyâ€™s Nicola Sturgeon that no second independence referendum means no â€œfor a generation.â€ With Scotland going to the polls for a parliamentary election in May and the SNP expected to win big, pressure on the government in Westminster to grant a rerun of the 2014 vote will grow. Jackâ€™s role could become a lot more high profile very quickly, and he has a tricky task making the case for the union against a backdrop of such animosity toward Johnson and his team.
Reshuffle safety rating: 2/5 â€”Â Hasnâ€™t been stellar and there may be a temptation for fresh blood to make the case for the Tories and the union ahead of Mayâ€™s election. But with only six Scottish Tory MPs to choose from, does Johnson have an alternative?
Oliver Dowden, culture secretaryÂ
The Whitehall gig known as the department of fun wasnâ€™t quite so light-hearted this year. â€œOliveâ€ eventually won kudos for the governmentâ€™s support schemes for the arts while the COVID-secure return of football has been one of the solaces of a difficult year for many. Also had to grapple with the diplomatic ramifications of the U.K.â€™s decision on Huawei and managed to kick the can down the road on a deal with the EU that would allow data to continue to flow between the U.K. and the Continent post-Brexit. Knows how power operates at the very top from his days as David Cameronâ€™s deputy chief of staff. Launched the not-at-all hilariously named â€œOperation Sleeping Beautyâ€ to try and get pantomimes up and running in time for Christmas. The virus had other ideas.
Reshuffle safety rating: 4/5 â€” a decent year. Not a bad tip to move up the Cabinet ranks.
Amanda Milling, party chairman; Simon Hart, Welsh secretary; Natalie Evans, leader of the House of Lords
Not a lot to report from the Cabinetâ€™s lower-profile members. Party Chairman Milling blamed Labour for everything, which is her job. Welsh Secretary Hart was the first minister to answer a question in parliament remotely. Evans, entering her sixth year in the same job, is a veritable veteran in a Cabinet that has seen a whole lot of churn in recent years.
And finally, Boris Johnson, prime minister
Where do you even start? Began the year riding high on the back of a landslide election victory, certain his place in history would be secure when on January 31 he took the U.K. out of the EU. And then, well â€¦ you know the rest.
Nearly lost his life to coronavirus in April. In the same month, his partner Carrie Symonds gave birth to the coupleâ€™s first son, Wilfred. But it will be the policy decisions not the extraordinary personal drama for which Johnsonâ€™s 2020 is remembered.
Delay over the first lockdown which scientists reckon cost thousands of lives, via mixed-up messaging, serial optimism sometimes with little basis in reality; accusations of cronyism and chaos around the testing system; confusion over advice for schools and U-turns aplenty; and then another better-late-than never national lockdown in the fall â€” thereâ€™s plenty to choose from in the negative ledger. On the upside, the U.K.â€™s investment in vaccines and its status as the first in the world to approve and roll out the first two breakthrough jabs has given Johnson a welcome boost at the end of a difficult year. And he did get the Brexit deal (though some would say it was there for the taking).
His popularity, both among his party and with the wider public, has plummeted, leading some to speculate how long he will â€” or even will want â€” to stay in the top job.
How well the U.K. now adjusts to the lived reality of Brexit and how it recovers from the devastation of 2020 will be the two things on which the success or failure of Johnsonâ€™s premiership will now likely depend.