OPINION - Guto Harri: Rishi Sunak should act like England at the World Cup and reshuffle his pack

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Frank Augstein/PA) (PA Wire)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Frank Augstein/PA) (PA Wire)

As rugby managers make changes to their teams in a hugely competitive World Cup, should Rishi Sunak not apply some of the discipline of top sport to his ministerial line-up?

Only weeks ahead of their opening game in Paris, England replaced no fewer than nine of the 15 men scheduled to start in their final warm-up match. It didn’t help then but after a string of heavy losses it had to be done. And last weekend, that refreshed squad defied the critics and beat a formidable opponent almost everyone had expected to win.

Sport is brutal, not only for the obvious physical challenges, but because of the honesty it demands about every player’s performance. We can all see if someone misses a tackle, drops the ball or scores a try, and digital tags now fit between every player’s shoulder blades recording a range of data from speed to distance to energy levels. There’s nowhere to hide.

Sport is brutal because of the honesty it demands about every player — imagine that in politics

Imagine that in politics. Instead of power and pace, grunt work and glory, you’d measure administrative competence, delivery on the key challenges, contribution to the agreed game plan and media performance.

I don’t personally believe that anyone in Government today should be blamed for faulty concrete used in public buildings many decades ago, but they are inevitably judged on their response to the emerging crisis it’s caused. Do they get a grip, provide the facts needed, deploy the tone demanded, reassure parents and initiate the actions needed to resolve the problem? Gillian Keegan is a feisty soul with the potential to be a very popular player, but her performance this summer would have left her pretty vulnerable as an athlete.

Likewise the Home Secretary. No, she is not stupid. I know from my time in No 10 that Suella Braverman is clever, spirited and charming, but the public are sick of reading about her “Right-wing” credentials, her opposition to China or the European Court of Human Rights, while our streets are increasingly lawless and small boats cross the Channel in record numbers. Recent changes in police priorities and the impressive cut in the backlog of asylum claims suggests she should still be on the team but not take her position for granted.

I won’t go through every post but the state of our roads, railways, rivers, housing and hospitals leave a lot to be desired, and the ministers in charge should be feeling the heat. But do they? I know the Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, is acutely aware of his responsibilities. A decent scrum-half in his day, he never forgets that his department spends the equivalent of the GDP of Greece yet most of us struggle to see a GP, not to mention get treated in hospital. Right man in right role but with a big job that will take a lot more time. Can we say that of Michael Gove, Thérèse Coffey or Mark Harper?

Sunak has just lost one of the shoo-ins for any Cabinet. Ben Wallace at Defence was like Taulupe Faletau in the Welsh scrum, respected by his peers, trusted to deliver, thinking ahead and knuckling down. He left Cabinet — as almost no one does in politics — on his own terms with big boots to fill. His replacement is best described as a utility back: useful on the bench, fit, ready and reliable, happy to play in any position. But Grant Schapps wouldn’t claim to have the military credibility of Penny Mordaunt or James Cleverly, not to mention Tom Tugenhadt, Tobias Ellwood or Andrew Mitchell, who transitioned to politics after successful careers in the armed forces.

So politics is different and the harsh reality is that Sunak has very limited room for manoeuvre when picking his team. Cabinets are messy constructs where defeated opponents, rising stars, relevant ringleaders and potential troublemakers have to be locked in. It’s rare to find a Secretary of State with specialist knowledge of their brief.

Jeremy Hunt is a fascinating example of a great appointment that seemed so obvious yet only happened because Liz Truss was desperately vulnerable as PM at the time. When a couple of us suggested him to Boris Johnson last year, some of his groupies thought we were mad. And now he’s bombproof.

But Sunak should take a hard look at the team and ask if they complement him and strengthen each other? What do they do that the public will value, what do they say that voters will appreciate? How does their background reflect the Government’s mission? And how do they compare to their Labour opposites?

Now’s the time to change if the big match is to be won next year and it will be too late then to say there were better people on the bench.

Guto Harri was Downing Street director of communications for Boris Johnson