The reshuffle makes it clearer than ever that Boris Johnson owns Brexit, the net zero transition, and COP26 - the pressure to deliver on his many promises is only going to intensify
There was a brief moment yesterday morning when three of the government's top green economy posts - Business Secretary, Environment Secretary, and COP26 President - were vacant. Then Chancellor Sajid Javid resigned in the midst of an explosive power struggle with Number 10 and suddenly all four of the five critical environmental and economic posts were empty.
Add in the sacking of the Housing Minister, two junior Transport Ministers, and the Science and Universities Minister, plus big changes at DFID, and virtually every green economy remit in government has a new boss in place.
This wasn't quite the massive machinery of government shake-up that had been trailed in some quarters - DFID has survived and DECC remains consigned to the history books - but it was a more wide-ranging reshuffle than many expected and a stark flexing of prime ministerial muscles. Javid's shock departure - choosing to resign rather than accept the sacking of all of his advisors and another victory for Dominic Cummings - will dominate the headlines, but across the piece Johnson has got loyalists into key posts and re-emphasised Number 10's focus group-tested priorities at every turn.
The good news for the green economy is that one of those top priorities seems to be the pursuit of a net zero UK and the delivery of a successful COP26 Summit.
The brutal ultimatum presented to Sajid Javid - one that he this evening described as one "no self-respecting Minister" could accept - combined with the purging of Leadsom and a number of other Ministers who were said to have stood up to Johnson in Cabinet may well ring plenty of alarm bells, while being extremely tough on some admirable individuals. But equally the Number 10 power grab over the Treasury does give the PM and his advisors yet more levers to pull as they work to deliver their strategic goals.
Environmental campaigners have long argued that the Treasury is the biggest single block on bolder green investment and more ambitious decarbonisation plans. With reports already suggesting that it is set to be a remarkably green budget, climate hawks may have cause to celebrate, even as deficit hawks watch on nervously. Dominic Cummings is known to want a big increase in investment in 21st century infrastructure and advanced R&D - and the biggest single barrier to such investment has just been defenestrated, likely taking his fiscal rules with him.
There are other sources of cautious optimism. It was notable at this week's PRASEG reception how many new intake Tory MPs hymned the benefit of renewables. Meanwhile, today's reshuffle is notable for the fact there is hardly a climate sceptic, libertarian ideologue to be seen. That would not have been the case only a few short years ago. Johnson may stretch the definition of One Nation Tory to breaking point, but his stated aspiration to become a 'Brexity Hezza' looks more serious by the day. You would not mistake any of his government for Corbynistas, but they are Johnsonian loyalists and appear to acknowledge there is a role for an active state in pursuit of a 'levelled up', net zero, post-Brexit Britain. They are also increasingly comfortable with the language of climate emergency and clean technology.
The new Business Secretary and COP26 President Alok Sharma provides a case in point. Having not had a track record as a climate hawk, he has in recent months repeatedly highlighted the critical role of UK aid in driving decarbonisation and bolstering climate resilience in developing countries. His appointment as COP26 President surprised many, but there is a logic to it. He has developed diplomatic experience at DFID and the Foreign Office and is widely regarded if a safe and undemonstrative pair of hands, which can count for a lot at Climate Summits. There is also sense in having the Minister responsible for driving the UK's net zero transition in charge of trying to convince the rest of the world to go net zero.
However, there are also legitimate concerns with both Sharma's appointment and the wider reshuffle. If Number 10 ultimately decided that Michael Gove had too much on his plate to make him COP26 President as well it is hard to see how Sharma will be less busy. "Alok, old chap, we need a new energy white paper, a net zero strategy, no deal planning (not that we call it that anymore), and you've got to be on call for the next Thomas Cook bankruptcy. Oh, and can you lead the most delicate and high stakes diplomatic and logistical exercise in modern history."
The new Business Secretary is going to need an exceptional deputy, a fantastic team, and comprehensive support from Number 10, the Foreign Office, and every other department.
Johnson and Dominic Raab in particular will have to step up. It is notable that Number 10 wanted David Cameron or William Hague for the job and have ended up with someone who clearly will not have Angela Merkel available on the WhatsApp group. Sharma may well have the necessary skill set, but he is going to need Johnson to invest some serious political capital in support of the Summit. The lack of 'big beasts' in this government capable of lending a hand is revealing. Johnson is the star of the show, which is clearly the way he likes it.
Whether Number 10 is willing to go all-in in support of COP26 and the wider net zero agenda remains the big open question. The early signs are good. It looks like a priority. But the changing of the guard in all the big green posts means the new team does not have long to get its bearings. Meanwhile, the Brexit talks loom, threatening to revive the combative narrative of the past few years, sucking up the political oxygen and dominating all. Everything about the government's record suggests it is unlikely to resist the temptation to stoke some populist tensions if that is what it thinks is required. Net zero and COP26 could very easily get pushed down the list of priorities once again, and if that is what Johnson decides there are not many dissenting Ministers around to push back against him.
However, this reshuffle does make one thing abundantly clear. This is now Johnson's government. He owns Brexit, he owns COP26, and he owns the net zero transition. He and his team better not break it.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
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