UK finance minister quits as PM wields axe to tighten grip

Dispute sparks surprise Javid resignation; Labour Party calls Cabinet reshuffle 'chaos'

Finance minister Sajid Javid resigned in a shock move yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Finance minister Sajid Javid resigned in a shock move yesterday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • British finance minister Sajid Javid resigned yesterday, a surprise move that underlined Prime Minister Boris Johnson's desire to tighten his grip on government by jettisoning a minister who refused to toe the line.

Mr Johnson, who had wanted to minimise any disruption from the Cabinet reshuffle, quickly appointed Mr Javid's deputy, Mr Rishi Sunak, a loyal supporter of the Prime Minister who has often been put in front of the cameras to sell government policy.

Mr Johnson's team had carefully choreographed the reshuffle, presenting it as an opportunity to foster new talent, particularly among women, while also rewarding loyal supporters to deliver his vision for the United Kingdom beyond Brexit.

But the finance minister's resignation - which some commentators said might have been sought by Mr Johnson's team - due to a dispute over Mr Javid's advisers added to the picture that the Prime Minister will not tolerate dissent in his government.

"He has turned down the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister)," a source close to Mr Javid said.

The source said Mr Johnson had told Mr Javid he would have to sack his advisers and replace them with advisers from the Prime Minister's Downing Street office. "The Chancellor said no self-respecting minister would accept those terms."

Mr Johnson had not been expected to change the biggest-hitting posts in his government, but most saw even the smallest changes lower down the order as a sign that he wanted to tighten his grip on power.

His sacking of Northern Ireland minister Julian Smith, who only a month ago had helped broker the restoration of a government in the British province, prompted criticism from politicians north and south of the border with Ireland.

Mr Smith, who had been in charge of parliamentary discipline for Mr Johnson's predecessor, Mrs Theresa May, was the first minister to lose his job in the reshuffle. He was joined by business minister Andrea Leadsom and environment minister Theresa Villiers.

Ultra-loyal Alok Sharma, a former minister for international development, was appointed as the new minister for business and also the head of the COP26 climate change summit, when world leaders will travel to Scotland in November.

But it was Mr Javid's shock move which shook up the "business as usual" look that Mr Johnson had wanted to portray.

The Prime Minister's aides had previously played down suggestions, based on Mr Johnson's senior adviser Dominic Cummings' well-publicised desire to see a radical reorganisation of government, that there would be major changes.

On Wednesday night, a source in his office said the Prime Minister wanted the "reshuffle to set the foundations for government now and in the future" and to promote new talent, particularly women.

It was clear that loyalty mattered to Mr Johnson in delivering his agenda and meeting the promises he made in the run-up to the Dec 12 election last year, in which he won a large majority.

But opposition politicians said the reshuffle was a mess.

"This is a historical record. A government in chaos within weeks of an election," said Mr John McDonnell, finance spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2020, with the headline 'UK finance minister quits as PM wields axe to tighten grip'. Subscribe