Boris Johnson will begin reshuffling his ministerial team on Thursday, seeking to promote record numbers of women but stopping short of a big cabinet clear-out or a sweeping overhaul of the way Whitehall is run.
After months of speculation that the prime minister would use his post-election reshuffle to revolutionise the look of his government, his allies on Wednesday said only “moderate” changes would be made.
Mr Johnson’s allies said he will not change his top team: Sajid Javid, chancellor, Dominic Raab, foreign secretary, and Priti Patel, home secretary, are all predicted to remain in their jobs.
Instead Mr Johnson will focus on bringing into the lower and middle reaches of his government talented MPs — particularly women — whom he hopes will be in the cabinet by the time of the next election.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan, armed forces minister, Suella Braverman, a leading Brexiter and former minister, and backbench MP Gillian Keegan, who started work in a Liverpool car factory at the age of 16 and went on to forge a successful business career, are among those set to be promoted.
Julian Smith, Northern Ireland secretary, is potentially facing the sack in spite of brokering the resumption of the power-sharing executive at Stormont only last month, winning cross-party plaudits for his work.
Mr Johnson’s allies say the prime minister was unhappy about the aspect of the deal that created plans for a new body to investigate murders in the Troubles, and that he had been “blindsided”.
“There is concern about the way he’s been operating,” a senior government source told The Times. The Conservatives had promised at the election to end “vexatious” prosecutions of former servicemen.
But if Mr Smith is sacked there will be genuine anger among his cabinet colleagues, who insist that the Northern Ireland secretary kept Mr Johnson and the cabinet fully briefed on the Stormont deal taking shape.
All ministers were given details of the plan through a “write round” of the proposed policy on January 11 and one colleague of Mr Smith said: “The idea that there wasn’t full awareness of the deal is completely untrue.”
Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister, is expected to be elevated to the cabinet and is widely tipped to replace Nicky Morgan as culture secretary. Alok Sharma, international development secretary, is slated for promotion.
Andrea Leadsom, business secretary, Theresa Villiers, environment secretary, and Geoffrey Cox, attorney-general, are among those ministers who have been tipped for demotion.
“The prime minister wants this reshuffle to set the foundations for government now and in the future,” said one Number 10 official. “He wants to promote a generation of talent that will be promoted further in coming years.”
However, Mr Johnson has shelved plans for a big shake-up of Whitehall departments. Proposals for a business “superministry” and a merger of the Foreign Office and Department for International Development will not happen, for now at least.
The prime minister hopes that by the end of the reshuffle, half of junior ministers — or parliamentary under-secretaries of state — will be women. A reduction in the number of female cabinet members is not expected.
Mr Cox said on Wednesday he would be willing to run the government’s planned review of the “constitution, democracy and rights” if asked to do so by Mr Johnson. Penny Mordaunt, former defence secretary, has been tipped for a cabinet recall.
Briefings about a likely cull of cabinet ministers have disrupted government business since the December 12 general election, with officials unsure whether their boss would still be in a job in a few weeks’ time.
“Several departments have ground to a halt,” said one minister, arguing that Mr Johnson should have put an end to the reshuffle speculation many weeks ago. Another minister said: “It has been appalling.”
The disruption has been exacerbated by speculation that Mr Johnson might be about to abolish some government departments or merge them, leaving officials unsure about their own futures.
Some ministers — particularly women — feel deeply aggrieved by the anonymous briefing against them in recent weeks, suggesting that Mr Johnson could have some new enemies on the backbenches in the House of Commons by the end of the week.
Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser, has fuelled speculation of a big Whitehall upheaval: he has long argued that the cabinet is too big and that the number of ministers needed to be reduced.
Full cabinet members total 22 but a further 10 “also attend cabinet”, including Zac Goldsmith, an unpaid environment minister who sits in the House of Lords. Some cabinet ministers jokingly refer to the 10 as “the primary school”.
But Mr Cummings’ hopes of a big “machinery of government” overhaul have been thwarted.
“We ran out of time,” said one Conservative official, adding that some departmental mergers could yet happen in the autumn but needed more work.
One minister tipped by Downing Street insiders on Wednesday night for a new role was surprised to hear their name publicly discussed.
“I’ve heard nothing from No 10 for over a week. You would think they might give us a heads up before telling the media we’re about to be promoted,” the person said.
Mr Cummings told ministerial special advisers last week that he would “see half of you next week”, suggesting he still expected a big clear-out of ministers and their political staff.
But Mr Cummings has been on a losing streak in recent weeks, after the government decided to approve the High Speed 2 rail project and give Chinese telecoms supplier Huawei a role in Britain’s 5G mobile phone network.