Dominic Cummings’ hopes for a radical shake-up of Whitehall and the cabinet look set to be thwarted as Boris Johnson seeks to use this week’s reshuffle to shift public attention away from Brexit and onto his plans for investment to “level up” disadvantaged areas of the country.
The prime minister’s determination to redirect the political debate away from the aftermath of Brexit and onto infrastructure plans has ensured that Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, is set to be one of a number of ministers to survive what was initially expected to be a cull of Mr Johnson’s top team on Thursday.
Instead of slashing the size of the cabinet, taking the axe to ministerial jobs and merging Whitehall departments – as his senior aide has advocated – Mr Johnson’s focus as he puts the final touches to his reshuffle at Chequers this weekend has been on delivering projects to drive growth in the northern and midlands seats which switched to the Tories in the December election.
He has told MPs they can expect a decision on the HS2 rail link between London and the Midlands “in days”.
And announcements are expected over the coming week on transport links, freeports, broadband and the next-generation 5G telecoms network, as the prime minister seeks to stimulate the domestic economy to counterbalance the likely blow to trade as Brexit takes effect.
The shift in emphasis is being seen as a mark of limits to the influence wielded by Mr Cummings, who has previously made radical reform of Whitehall a priority and dismissed HS2 as a “disaster zone”.
With Downing Street understood to have been impressed by Mr Shapps’ handling of the renationalisation of Northern Rail, the restoration of some branch lines closed by Beeching and the announcement of new cash for buses, the transport secretary will stay on his position to oversee what Mr Johnson regards as a vital priority area.
Confirmation of Mr Shapps’ post will mark the scale of his rehabilitation since he was forced to quit as Tory chairman over allegations of bullying by a party activist, and he later spent time on the backbenches attempting to undermine Theresa May’s position as prime minister.
Elsewhere in the cabinet, a predicted massacre of female ministers is now thought unlikely to happen.
The jobs of Theresa Villiers, the environment secretary, and Andrea Leadsom, the business secretary, are believed to be at risk. But Liz Truss will have been reassured by the approving mentions for her work as international trade secretary in Mr Johnson’s speech on Monday.
Prisons minister Lucy Frazer is being talked about as England and Wales’s first female attorney general, with a widespread expectation in Westminster that current incumbent Geoffrey Cox is set for the chop.
Mr Johnson will have to find a replacement for Nicky Morgan, who made it clear after her elevation to the House of Lords that her tenure as culture secretary was a stopgap until the PM could recast his top team. And Stephen Barclay will be expecting a reward after accepting the sacrifice of his cabinet place as Brexit secretary when the UK cut its ties with Brussels at 11pm on 31 January.
Michael Gove is tipped to be appointed president of November’s United Nations COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, after Downing Street indicated that the PM was looking for a ministerial “big-hitter” who could perform on a global stage.
Mr Johnson has been meeting Tory MPs, including many from the 2019 northern intake, over recent days to hear their accounts of the infrastructure improvements which will be needed in their areas to achieve his manifesto promise of “levelling up” different parts of the country.
Over the coming days he is expected to announce schemes including:
– Projects which will be receiving a share of £40m investment in 5G pilots for rural areas.
– A £20m package of improvements to improve services and cut delays on West Midlands Trains.
A No 10 source said: “The PM understands the responsibility he has to deliver for everyone who put their trust in the Conservatives in the election. That means transforming the transport and infrastructure links in local areas, particularly in the north.
“For some this will mean big, ambitious projects. But he has been struck also by the small changes that will make an even bigger difference to the everyday lives of people across the country – be they roads, rail or other projects.”