The Conservatives are currently placing a heavy emphasis on their “levelling up” agenda, designed to reduce regional inequalities across the UK. With that in mind, it would make sense for the Prime Minister to use the forthcoming reshuffle (which could come after local elections in May, in tandem with the Queen’s speech) in part as an opportunity to ensure that MPs from across the country are represented in Cabinet, so that all regions have a voice in government policy.
Ahead of the reshuffle, WA has taken a look at where the appointees to five key government posts have historically come from in the post-WW2 era, and which regions have been under-represented in government. The posts are: Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Health Secretary and Education Secretary (all have existed in their current or a similar form since WW2, unlike some other key positions).
Figure 1 maps the proportion of post-war Conservative ministers in these 5 positions coming from particular regions, based on which constituency they represented at the time of their appointment. It demonstrates that most Conservative ministers have historically come from the South East, East, and London. The North East and Wales have each only had one Conservative representative in any of these positions since WW2.
The Prime Minister’s position is naturally not up for discussion in the reshuffle. Nonetheless it is also worth noting only two post-WW2 Conservative PMs have represented constituencies outside the South-East, East, and London: Anthony Eden (Warwick and Leamington), and Alec Douglas-Home (Kinross and Western Perthshire). The Conservatives last fielded a leader from a seat outside the South-East, East or London in 2001, with William Hague (Richmond, Yorks).
These facts certainly reinforce the classic image of the Conservatives as a party of the Home Counties. This is an image which the current Conservative government is keen to shift in order to be seen as representing Britain as a whole, and keep the seats the Conservatives gained in the North in the last election in order to hold onto their majority.
However, the current Cabinet conforms to the historical pattern. Figure 2, which maps the seats held by those currently in Cabinet, looks remarkably similar to Figure 1. No current Cabinet ministers have their seats in either the North East or Wales, except for the Secretary of State for Wales himself, Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire), while a total of 7 Cabinet ministers have their seats in the East of England.
This lack of representation in key positions may be particularly concerning for the Conservatives, given their gains in the 2019 election in what have both been traditional Labour strongholds. This is compounded by the fact that, as Figure 3 shows, the North East has been strongly represented during Labour governments, with MPs from Wales also having a strong showing.
If the Conservatives do decide to increase the representation of the North East and Wales in the Cabinet, who could they choose and for which post?
As Figure 4 shows, Education and Health Secretaries have traditionally been more geographically diverse than the Home and Foreign Secretaries. Both these positions are currently also held by ministers – in Matt Hancock (West Suffolk) at Health and Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) at Education – whose performances during the pandemic have come in for criticism. They could be ripe for replacement with a North East or Welsh MP.
Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Berwick upon Tweed) is, perhaps, a likely candidate from the North East for a top government job. Currently the minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, she has held several government posts, including that of Secretary of State for International Development until the Department for International Development was merged with the Foreign Office in September 2020. Elected in 2015, she has also been an MP longer than those elected in the Conservative surge in the North in 2019. For more junior positions, it is worth keeping an eye on some from the 2019 intake – including Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) – being given their first government jobs in a bid to increase the regional diversity of the government.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Johnson will prioritise levelling-up the Cabinet like this. The historic geographic distribution of Conservative ministers has favoured the South East, and many of the party’s most experienced MPs and ministers still represent the region. But such a move could tally with the government’s setting up of Departments outside London and make an important statement as the Conservatives seek to cement their hold over Red Wall seats.