Boris Johnson's ousting of his finance minister could actually limit his options

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street on his way to Buckingham Palace after the general election in London, Britain, December 13, 2019.
Thomas Mukoya | Reuters

Any time that the British prime minister reshuffles his or her cabinet, there are bound to be disappointed ministers — or ex-ministers — turfed out from a job they enjoy in a system that can sometimes prize loyalty over ability.

But last week's surprise resignation of Sajid Javid, the U.K.'s short-lived finance chief, could actually limit Boris Johnson's ability to make personnel changes in the future, even if the latest cabinet shake-up was intended to give him greater short-term control over his ministerial team.

Javid, a Deutsche Bank broker turned politician, had already served as home secretary before being named Chancellor of the Exchequer, and together with Dominic Raab (the current foreign secretary), Matt Hancock (the current health secretary) and Michael Gove (currently the minister for the Cabinet Office) he had in the past vied for the leadership of the Conservative Party.

Boris Johnson's new government shows policy remains uncertain, economist says
Boris Johnson's new government shows policy remains uncertain, economist says

So when Prime Minister Johnson asked him to stay on, but insisted he would have to make do without his own team of personal advisors, Javid doubtless saw this as a form of attempted humiliation. His subsequent resignation upset the carefully planned and executed changes to the Johnson government last week, and delayed what was clearly meant to be a precisely choreographed piece of political theater.

But as one former senior Treasury advisor who has worked under more than one chancellor pointed out to me, Javid's former deputy and now his successor, Rishi Sunak, had been given a "hospital pass" with the new budget that is expected in just a matter of weeks.

But he also suggested that Sunak's position was now incredibly secure for the foreseeable future, because a prime minister that sacks or forces out two chancellors might appear to have a management problem — in the eyes of his fellow politicians, not to mention investors. To misquote Oscar Wilde, it is a misfortune to lose one chancellor, but to lose two smacks of carelessness.

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid attends a session during the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, January 22, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Johnson repeatedly made clear during last year's election campaign that he wanted to spend money — on infrastructure, underserved communities and economically transformative industries. Javid had repeatedly made clear in recent months that he would only be willing to allow that spending if the borrowing that made it possible was governed by clearly communicated rules and limits.

It is still not clear if there were more serious disagreements between the two men that led to Javid's ouster, but right now, for the financial markets and investors watching the British economy closely, it will be Sunak's ability to maintain fiscal prudence that will be under the microscope.