Greg Hands named as new Tory chairman in Rishi Sunak reshuffle

Greg Hands, the new Conservative Party chairman, leaves Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday - James Manning/PA
Greg Hands, the new Conservative Party chairman, leaves Downing Street after a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday - James Manning/PA

Rishi Sunak has appointed a loyalist who campaigned to keep Britain in the European Union as the new Tory chairman, also creating four new government departments in a mini-reshuffle.

Greg Hands, who was a trade minister, warned before the 2016 referendum that leaving the bloc would mean “fewer jobs, higher prices in our shops and less money for our public services”.

Mr Hands has in the past taken swipes at Boris Johnson, hitting out at his failure to resign from government when a third runway at Heathrow Airport was given the go-ahead.

The Chelsea and Fulham MP, who backed Mr Sunak for the Tory leadership last year, fills a vacancy created by the sacking of Nadhim Zahawi and will play a central role in preparing the party for the next general election, expected in 2024.

The appointment was the most eye-catching move on a morning in which the Prime Minister reorganised a number of government departments as he focused on the five promises against which he wants his premiership to be judged.

Dominic Raab, the under-fire Deputy Prime Minister, was not moved. An investigation into bullying allegations, which he denies, is ongoing, with the inquiries to be completed before any decisions are made by Downing Street.

Michael Gove, the Levelling Up Secretary, will remain in post after indicating that he was not interested in heading one of the new departments during discussions about the Whitehall changes.

Mr Sunak changed where responsibilities were held in three departments – the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

As a result, four new government departments have emerged. One is the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which delivers on an ambition announced by Mr Sunak during his summer Tory leadership bid. Grant Shapps, who had been business secretary, will head the department.

The change reflects the heightened focus put on energy in recent years, both in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February and the drive to make the UK a “net zero” carbon emitter by 2050.

The second will be called the Department for Business and Trade. Kemi Badenoch, who had been the international trade secretary, will head that brief.

It means the standalone Department of International Trade, created by Theresa May to strike trade deals after the Brexit vote in 2016, is merging with other business portfolios.

A government press release said the new department would “support growth by backing British businesses at home and abroad, promoting investment and championing free trade”.

A third change will see a newly streamlined Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The department had been responsible for digital issues but appears to have lost that brief.

It will be headed by Lucy Frazer, the Conservative MP for South East Cambridgeshire, who had been the minister for housing and planning.

There has also been the creation of a wholly new department, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. The press release announcing the change said it would “drive the innovation that will deliver improved public services, create new and better-paid jobs and grow the economy”.

The department will be headed by Michelle Donelan, who had been culture secretary before the changes were announced.

Lucy Frazer (left) and Michelle Donelan - Stefan Rousseau/PA
Lucy Frazer (left) and Michelle Donelan - Stefan Rousseau/PA

The creation of the new department chimes with what allies have previously described as Mr Sunak’s love of science and tech issues. He has made getting children to study maths to the age of 18 one of his central education policies.

George Freeman, the science minister, announced that he would become a minister in the new department.  Mr Gove was considered for heading up the new science department, but made it clear that he wanted to stay where he was. A source close to him said no formal offer had been made, and he did not discuss the matter with Mr Sunak.

The Whitehall reshuffle appears to be an attempt to better achieve the implementation of Mr Sunak’s policy agenda, which includes halving inflation this year and triggering economic growth.

The appointment of Mr Hands, a German speaker, as Tory chairman came as the Prime Minister attempts to keep Brexiteers onside over a renegotiated Northern Ireland Protocol.

In a series of tweets backing Mr Sunak for the Tory leadership last autumn, Mr Hands revealed that Mr Johnson, who was also seeking the leadership, had offered him the role of Northern Ireland secretary in the summer but he had turned it down.

Recalling the conversations, which came as Mr Johnson scrambled to remain prime minister amid resignations, Mr Hands wrote on Twitter:

The remarks are noteworthy because allies of Mr Johnson still hope he could launch another tilt at the Tory leadership, especially if the party continues to trail Labour by more than 20 percentage points closer to the general election.