Boris Johnson was criticised for making arch-loyalist Mark Spencer leader of the House of Commons on Tuesday, despite claims he told former minister Nusrat Ghani her “Muslimness” had contributed to her sacking.
Spencer was moved aside as chief whip in a mini-reshuffle as Johnson sought to restore discipline to his fractious party and reward Tory MPs who have helped him protect his position through the partygate scandal.
But as compensation, the longtime loyalist, who was involved in Johnson’s leadership campaign in 2019, was handed the prestigious title of leader of the Commons.
Conservative whips under Spencer’s leadership have been implicated in threatening potential Tory rebels with funding cuts for their constituencies and with stories about their personal lives being fed to the media – tactics Conservative backbencher William Wragg has likened to “blackmail”.
Ghani alleged last month that when she lost her job as a transport minister she was told that her “Muslimness” had been raised as a problem at a meeting in Downing Street. Spencer voluntarily identified himself as the person Ghani made the claims about, saying they were “completely false” and defamatory.
His Labour shadow, Thangam Debbonaire, said the appointment was “completely inappropriate”, adding: “This is just the latest in a long line of appointments that demonstrates this government’s complete disregard for standards in politics.”
Johnson’s shake-up also saw Jacob Rees-Mogg shifted from leader of the Commons to a new role of minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency – which allies said would be “very policy-heavy”.
Tory rightwingers, including former Brexit minister Lord Frost, have been urging Johnson to push ahead with deregulation and other policies aimed at demonstrating the benefits of leaving the European Union.
Senior backbencher Bernard Jenkin, chair of the House of Commons liaison committee, warned on Tuesday that his colleagues want Johnson to show evidence of significant change.
“He’s got to sort this out. We’re interested not in the optics, in some impression of a reset, we’re looking for a change in the capability and the character of the government, so that we can have confidence that nothing as clumsy and mortifying as this ‘partygate’ episode could ever happen again,” he said.
Chris Heaton-Harris, formerly Europe minister in the Foreign Office, takes over as chief whip from Spencer. Heaton-Harris was a key member of a parallel parliamentary organisation advising the prime minister amid his recent woes.
Heaton-Harris was accused of “McCarthyite” behaviour when he was universities minister after writing to vice-chancellors to demand a list of tutors lecturing on Brexit.
Stuart Andrew, who was deputy chief whip, is moved to be minister for housing in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Andrew becomes the 11th housing minister in 12 years, a continual churn that housing groups have argued means the sector is not properly considered by government.
The changes come amid a wider shake-up of the team around Johnson, as the prime minister seeks to reassure mutinous Tory MPs worried about alleged lockdown-breaking parties that are being investigated by police.
Last Thursday, four senior No 10 aides quit or were pushed out: Johnson’s longstanding policy chief, Munira Mirza; Dan Rosenfield, his chief of staff; Martin Reynolds, his principal private secretary; and his director of communications, Jack Doyle.
While Mirza’s departure was a surprise – her resignation letter condemned Johnson for falsely linking Keir Starmer to the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile – the other three had been tipped to leave amid the fallout from the party claims.
Barclay will lead efforts to integrate his department with a new Office of the Prime Minister and liaise with backbenchers over areas such as future policy. In place of Doyle, Johnson appointed Guto Harri as director of communications, a role he held for Johnson when he was mayor of London.
Mirza was swiftly replaced by Andrew Griffith, a former investment banker and Sky executive who entered parliament in 2019.
The internal reshuffle has faced some criticism. Some Tory MPs from northern “red wall” areas were critical of Griffith, who represents a safe seat in West Sussex, being handed a role shaping new government ideas.