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Tory MPs Are Wondering If Rishi Sunak Will Reshuffle Jeremy Hunt Out Of Treasury

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (Alamy)

5 min read

With Rishi Sunak looking for ways of sparking a major Tory turnaround, the Prime Minister is broadly expected to announce a significant Cabinet reshuffle in the coming weeks – and MPs are increasingly vocal about their suspicion that Chancellor Jeremy Hunt could be at risk.

A number of Conservative MPs have told PoliticsHome they believe Sunak may be tempted to replace Hunt as Chancellor of the Exchequer as part of a high-stakes Autumn re-set intended to bolster his ailing fortunes with voters.

One former Cabinet minister said Hunt lacks "oomph" and that Sunak could look to a more effective media performer to "bang the drum" for the government's economic message heading into the next general election, which must be called before the end of 2024.

A flat Tory party conference in Manchester earlier this month, followed last week by two stunning by-election losses to Labour, has put the Prime Minister under added pressure to yet again find new ways to instigate a Conservative revival and catch up with Labour's double-digit lead in the opinion polls.

In the next few weeks, the PM will use two key events to attempt to get on the front foot: the 7 November King's Speech and 22 November Autumn Statement, when the government will set out its policies and spending plans for the period between next month and the next parliament.

But he is also expected to carry out a Cabinet reshuffle in order to prime his top team to best appeal to voters ahead of the election. 

Last weekend The Guardian reported that Hunt may decide to quit as a Conservative MP before the next general election, fuelling Westminster speculation that Sunak will want a replacement Chancellor in place well before the country next goes to the polls.

Sunak kept Hunt on as Chancellor after the former health secretary was appointed by former prime minister Liz Truss to order the chaos she and Kwasi Kwarteng had unleashed with the mini-budget. 

A spokesperson for Hunt toldThe Sun that he would not quit as chancellor and would fight the next general election.

But the denial hasn't quelled a belief among some Conservative MPs that Sunak may still be tempted to take the bold step of replacing him in the Treasury in a bid to inject life into his premiership.

Three MPs, all close allies of Sunak, are seen as possible candidates to replace Hunt, reflecting a general consensus within party ranks that anyone chosen would be fully aligned with the Prime Minister on economic policy.

"Rishi is the Prime Minister and the Chancellor anyway," said one senior Tory.

Mel Stride, the current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is seen as a top contender.

It was only two months ago that Sunak chose Claire Coutinho to replace Grant Shapps as Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero. That decision represented a major promotion for Coutinho, who was elevated from a junior ministerial position and was only elected to the House of Commons in 2019. But the former special adviser is also being discussed as an MP who Sunak may choose to take into the general election as his Chancellor.

Oliver Dowden, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is also seen as a contender should the opportunity arise.

But other Conservative MPs struggle to believe that Sunak would be prepared to sack his Chancellor, no matter how much pressure he is under to spark a Conservative party comeback. 

They say the Prime Minister changing the second most important position in government is even more unlikely if the reshuffle happens before the Autumn Statement in late November, as that would give a new Chancellor vanishingly little time to prepare for the major fiscal event.

Asked about Hunt's future on Monday, Sunak's official spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister and Chancellor are working extremely closely together on the Autumn Statement. Obviously we wouldn’t speculate on constant reshuffle speculation."

There are also questions over whether Sunak will move to replace Suella Braverman in the Home Office in a bid to give his Cabinet a major shake-up.

The Home Secretary, who is also strongly tipped to be a future Conservative party leadership candidate, is a divisive force in the Tory ranks. 

More moderate MPs in the party's One Nation wing feel that what they describe as Braverman's inflammatory language about migration, plus her public push for the UK to leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), risks costing the Conservatives support in Tory areas where voters are more socially liberal. 

But the leading Brexiteer enjoys significant support in the right of the Conservative party, and any Sunak move to replace her would likely trigger a furious reaction from many MPs.

One former minister who would like to see the Prime Minister appoint a new Home Secretary conceded that Sunak likely won't want to pick a scrap with the right-wing of the party.

"The backlash from others, both real and faux, probably isn’t worth the fight," they said.

The big, wider question hanging over Sunak's rumoured reshuffle is how bold the Prime Minister is willing to be as part of his effort to avoid what opinion polls currently suggest is a likely defeat to Labour at the next general election.

Conservative MPs who are more pessimistic about the party's prospects at the next election say any reshuffle is virtually academic because it is very unlikely to shift public opinion.

There is also a feeling that Downing Street plans for a "presidential" Tory party general election campaign, centred on Sunak rather than the wider party, mean that the make-up of his Cabinet isn't hugely important anyway. "He will win or lose on his own," said one back bencher.

But there is a belief that Sunak could use a Cabinet reshuffle to put the party's stronger media performers in positions where they can be more effective during an election campaign.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, for example, is widely regarded as one of the best communicators that the Prime Minister has at his disposal. One former Cabinet minister said Cleverly was "wasted" in the foreign office, where he has limited opportunities to discuss the domestic issues that will dominate the run-up to polling day.

As PoliticsHome reported on Monday, there are some Tory backbenchers who are frustrated with Michael Gove's approach to rental reforms, and would like to see him removed from his current role as Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities.

There have been no real signs that Sunak would be willing to axe one of the party's most experienced senior ministers and one of his most high-profile backers, however.

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