Fresh from witnessing the deluded musings of his predecessor over the weekend, already beleaguered-looking prime minister Rishi Sunak today attempted to wrest back the agenda with the creation of four new government departments.
Initially sparked by the need to replace scandal-hit ex-Conservative chair Nadim Zahawi – who he sacked last week – today’s mini-reshuffle was posited by No 10 as a move to meet Sunak’s currently nebulous “five promises”. These are to “halve inflation, grow the economy, reduce debt, cut waiting lists and stop the boats”.
The shake-up includes a new Department for Science, Innovation & Technology, a combined Department for Business & Trade and a “re-focused” Department for Culture, Media & Sport. But without doubt the most eye-catching move is the creation of a standalone Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, headed by Grant Shapps.
A veteran who has served in numerous roles since joining the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government in 2010, Shapps faced scrutiny in 2015 for controversially using a number of pseudonyms in a lucrative second job as an internet marketer.
More recently, the MP for Welwyn Hatfield has fallen out with the railway unions as transport secretary and served as home secretary for six whole days during the last throes of Liz Truss’s doomed premiership. Sunak appointed him secretary of state to the now split-up Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy upon arrival at No 10 in October.
In his new role, Shapps will seek to calm a spiralling energy crisis that is now pushing many businesses to the edge. He will be tasked with “securing our long-term energy supply, bringing down bills and halving inflation”, according to Sunak.
“The move recognises the significant impact rising prices have had on households across the country as a result of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, and the need to secure more energy from domestic nuclear and renewable sources as we seize the opportunities of net zero,” Sunak adds.
In the wake of mounting unrest from the food sector over the government’s “paltry” energy support package for businesses, Shapps’ in-tray already looks like it will be overflowing.
The NFU said in January it was “frustrated” the government’s scaled-down 12-month Energy & Trade Intensive Industries (ETII) scheme had completely overlooked industries such as horticulture and poultry, while making provision for sectors such as botanical gardens.
“We have highlighted repeatedly how energy prices are already threatening next year’s crop of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, and the current changes to the scheme seem completely at odds with the government’s own ambition to grow more fruit & vegetables, as set out in its National Food Strategy,” argued NFU president Minette Batters at the time.
In response, the former BEIS told The Grocer the government had “taken a consistent approach to identifying the most energy and trade-intensive sectors”.
But as we have reported extensively (and most recently last week), soaring energy prices – coupled with eye-watering inflation on a host of other inputs – is threatening the future of many businesses.
So a crucial question for Shapps is whether he will stand by methodology around this scheme, or decide to give enhanced support to those overlooked categories. That question was alluded to today by the FDF, which stressed food and drink manufacturers “are under immense pressure as they try to keep their heads above water while absorbing high and volatile energy costs”.
However, this all comes against the background of worsening industrial relations, an economic outlook downgraded by the IMF last week and an increasingly beleaguered government in which backbench MPs are already looking for an excuse to oust our latest PM.
And if that wasn’t enough, let’s remember there will also have to be a general election by January 2025 at the very latest – which could point to more volatility and continued inertia when it comes to government policymaking.
Labour’s shadow climate and net zero secretary Ed Miliband today likened the reshuffle to the “rearranging of deckchairs on the sinking Titanic” rather than a move that could rescue the country.
Those hoping for greater support on energy prices will doubtless hope otherwise.