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Voices: Shapps knows his first duty is to defend the PM… sorry, I mean the realm

Even Sunak must know Shapps is not the strongest retail offer his party could make to disillusioned voters (PA Wire)
Even Sunak must know Shapps is not the strongest retail offer his party could make to disillusioned voters (PA Wire)

Farewell, then, to Ben Wallace – one of the few figures of substance in the cabinet, a man who commanded respect across party lines, and another candidate for the game of "best prime minister we never had”.

His record on Ukraine – pre-empting even Boris Johnson in sending military assistance – speaks volumes for his judgement. He leaves behind a vacuum... into which has been sucked the figure of Grant Shapps.

Cheerful, always up for a punishment beating in the media, a competent communicator and above all loyal to the prime minister, we may be sure that Shapps isn’t going to make any trouble for Rishi Sunak as the election nears. Five cabinet jobs inside a year, Shapps is the archetypal midfielder-ranking Single Transferable Minister.

Penny Mordaunt, say, (who did the job before) or Liam Fox (another would-be retread) might have found public lobbying for more defence spending too tempting: Shapps won’t. He knows his first duty is to protect and defend the realm, but with Sunak’s career a close second.

That is even more true of his youthful replacement in Energy, Claire Coutinho. A long-time friend and ally of Sunak, she’s on the hard right and is an outside chance for a future leadership election. Prime ministers who know the game is up sometimes quietly make late promotions to cabinet of younger bright figures they expect to be the leaders of tomorrow. Jim Callaghan did it with David Owen and John Smith, as John Major did with William Hague. In the game of politics, Claire Coutinho may be one to watch.

So what does this micro-reshuffle tell us about the prime minister’s state of mind? First, that he’s getting focused on gearing up for the election and making the best of the modest talent that surrounds him. As he peers around the cabinet table, he must see PR disasters all around him, and people who are already thinking of their own prospects in Opposition and life after Rishi.

Suella Braverman, for example, who is only in the cabinet under the Lyndon Johnson principle that he’d rather have her inside than outside making even more embarrassing scenes. Nothing would suit her better than a Labour landslide. Then there is Jeremy Hunt – a highly competent chancellor but running a charisma deficit. Michael Gove, reeking of Brexit and treachery. Therese Coffey, the Tory Venus rising from the brown waves of our polluted rivers. Gillian Keegan and Michelle Donekan are yet to make a mark.

Even Sunak himself, seemingly out of touch and with a tendency to patronise, must know he’s not the strongest retail offer his party could make to disillusioned voters. If the best the Tories have to offer in this hour of peril is Grant Shapps… well, I’m sure a clever chap like Sunak can discern the trouble he is in.

It must be exceptionally difficult for the prime minister to be in the position he finds himself. He has a difficult conference to look forward to – will Boris show up? – as well as more tricky by-elections, a tough Autumn statement, and continuing mixed results on his famous five pledges.

Not to mention whatever horrors Nadine Dorries has yet to unleash upon him (though she’s pretty much exhausted what little credibility she once possessed). Perhaps there’ll be a more substantial reshuffle late in the year or in early 2024 – but, after approaching 14 years in power, the party does seem to be running low on talent as well as ideas.

Even on the most optimistic assumptions, a fifth Tory term of office looks impossible. Now, the best Sunak can do is to limit the damage and try and preserve some kind of base for a comeback after a one-term Starmer government (and one ironically that is imprisoning itself inside Hunt’s spending plans).

The very best he could achieve would be to use “culture” issues to force a hung Parliament, in which case (if he actually wanted to) he could carry on as party leader and leader of the Opposition. In such a world of limited, compromised, middling ambitions, Grant Shapps looks an ideal mascot.