British PM Johnson demotes foreign minister in major Cabinet reshuffle

Mr Dominic Raab (left) has faced sustained criticism for his handling of the Afghan crisis. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday (Sept 15) appointed a new-look Cabinet to revamp his Brexiteer government after controversies over Covid-19, Afghanistan and taxes, demoting his under-fire Foreign Minister Dominic Raab.

Mr Raab was moved to the role of justice secretary, but will retain the role of deputy prime minister, Downing Street confirmed.

The former lawyer, who deputised for Mr Johnson when he was in intensive care with Covid-19 in April last year, has faced sustained criticism for his handling of the Afghan crisis.

Trade Secretary Liz Truss, who has brokered a series of deals since Britain's full exit from the European Union in January, has been tipped to replace him.

Gaffe-prone Education Secretary Gavin Williamson was the first minister to indicate he was out of a job, tweeting that it had been a "privilege" to serve in his role since 2019 when Mr Johnson took office on a vow to "get Brexit done".

Now that Britain has formally left the EU after a years-long divorce process, the Conservative government has been battling to tame one of the world's highest per capita death tolls from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Johnson enjoyed a "vaccine bounce" after Britain led the Western world in a mass immunisation programme, but the Conservatives' lead over the main opposition Labour party has eroded in recent opinion polls.

Last week, Mr Johnson broke an election promise not to raise taxes as he announced a new levy to fund the beleaguered state-run National Health Service (NHS) and elderly care.

Mr Johnson on Tuesday outlined a plan to restore pandemic restrictions if needed, to avert a fresh crisis for the NHS heading into what could be a difficult winter with hospitalisations rising again.

After days of speculation, a Downing Street source confirmed the reshuffle was happening, saying Mr Johnson would "put in place a strong and united team to build back better from the pandemic".

"The PM will be appointing ministers this afternoon with a focus on uniting and levelling up the whole country," the source added.

However, Mr Johnson also faces criticism for failing to flesh out his "levelling up" agenda to rebalance growth in deprived regions of Britain, including former Labour strongholds of northern England.

'Absolute idiocy'

Mr Raab was on holiday on the Greek island of Crete as the government scrambled to evacuate British nationals and Afghan staff in the face of Taliban advances last month.

Mr Williamson meanwhile has faced a barrage of complaints about his handling of school closures, examination arrangements and university admissions during the coronavirus emergency.

Labour's deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Williamson, who last week muddled up two of Britain's most prominent black sportsmen, "should have been sacked over a year ago".

"That prat's absolute idiocy, failures and uselessness have damaged life chances of our country's children and this government has failed young people, teachers & education staff," she tweeted.

Brexit point man Michael Gove had been suggested as a replacement for Interior Minister Priti Patel, another arch Brexiteer who has been under pressure amid a surge in migrant crossings from France.

But she and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak flanked Mr Johnson in the House of Commons, with Downing Street confirming they had kept their jobs.

Johnson's official spokesman said the premier understood "the importance of having a diverse Cabinet".

But he would not guarantee that female representation would at least be maintained at its current level, which under Johnson has fallen to five out of 23 Cabinet ministers.

Political strategist Dominic Cummings, the Brexit mastermind who fell out with Mr Johnson last year, branded the shake-up the "Carrie reshuffle", suggesting that allies of the Prime Minister's wife will be rewarded.

The Downing Street spokesman denied this.

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