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Westminster’s favourite parlour game returned this week: the reshuffle. 

Rishi Sunak’s first switcharound of ministers proved surprisingly substantial. The most notable arrival to the Cabinet was Greg Hands, the new Conservative party chairman who has (in his words) 18 months to prepare for the next election.

But what was most intriguing was Sunak’s reconfiguration of Whitehall. It is unusual for a Prime Minister to switch around departments this late in a political cycle, yet Downing Street had a clear purpose: to signal what truly matters to the Government and to improve delivery of its policy priorities rolling into 2024.

Machinery of government, or brass plaque changes in civil service speak, are never as sexy or headline-grabbing as which ministers are up and down. Yet the changes this week, many of them long discussed, have the potential to focus on more agile delivery. 

The first major change, merging the Department for International Trade with Business, has been kicking around since Boris Johnson’s tenure. A separate trade ministry made sense when the UK was focused on the initial round of post-Brexit trade deals. Now the focus is on maximising growth, which the new super-ministry for Business and Trade (BIT) will seek to do under the leadership of Onward alumnus Kemi Badenoch. 

The second change, the creation of a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, points to a priority very close to the Prime Minister. If BIT is a de facto Department for Immediate Growth, SIT is where the medium and long-term future of the economy lies. Our recent paper, Rocket Science, outlined how the UK can become a science superpower. Cabinet-level representation for science should just be the start. 

The third change, breaking out the energy brief from the old Business department, was pledged by Sunak in last summer’s leadership contest. The new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero highlights the necessary emphasis on securing energy supplies alongside climate change commitments — both must work in tandem. 

Handily, Onward’s recent report on green jobs outlines the opportunities for left-behind towns from the green revolution. Whether it is Humberside, Teesside or Merseyside, new industries and supply chains are opening up – all of which should tie into the Government’s narrative on growth.

The other arrival to the Cabinet table in the reshuffle was Lucy Frazer, who takes over the rest of Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Above all, this ministry must focus on British soft power — one of greatest national assets too often overlooked. 

Cultural power speaks to another of the government’s core missions. In Onward’s new report this week, Levelling Up Locally, Adam Hawksbee and Shivani Menon highlighted the power cultural regeneration has in the very places that are in need of levelling up. The whole report, which highlights the blight of antisocial behaviour, is worth your time if you’re still puzzled as to how levelling up should be delivered. 

But Frazer’s arrival in the Cabinet means yet another housing minister — there have been 14 holders of the crucial post since the Tories returned to power in 2010. Thankfully, the government has chosen Rachel Maclean, a member of Onward’s advisory board, to do whatever she can to build more homes. 

All together, the changes signal a subtle but significant shift in how Whitehall operates. The challenge for the Government is to ensure the upheaval of change doesn’t distract from what the Prime Minister is trying to achieve.

Sebastian Payne, Director

News and media

Our final report in the Levelling Up in Practice Program, Levelling Up Locally, featured widely in the media. Adam Hawksbee was quoted in The Times on the report. It received coverage in the Financial Times and landed on the front page of The Yorkshire Post, with mentions also in London Playbook and Manchester Evening News. BBC Politics Live also featured the report during a discussion about antisocial behaviour. 

Adam Hawksbee appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Analysis this week to discuss the foundational economy, highlighting our work in Oldham.

First Steps continues to receive coverage, with mentions in reports for The GuardianOn London and The Critic

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Event Graphics 2023 4 1 - All change - Rishi Sunak's first reshuffle

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