If Boris Johnson really wants to 'level up' Britain, his reshuffled cabinet must be more diverse

Social mobility starts at home – if Britain is to fire on all cylinders, so must Boris Johnson’s cabinet

Justine Greening
Wednesday 12 February 2020 14:38 GMT
Dominic Cummings tells reporter that children's TV characters PJ Masks could do 'better job' than cabinet

Reshuffles are never easy. In fact, they often leave a trail of disappointed and disgruntled MPs in their wake. Yet they are also often far less radical than the pre-shuffle hype suggests. Writing as a former secretary of state involved in a number of reshuffles, they can become a political pantomime that distracts from the day-to-day running of a department.

Nevertheless, prime ministers should use reshuffles to galvanise their government, getting a team in place that can deliver on government promises. This process is especially vital for Boris Johnson and his “levelling up” agenda, which must start by getting his cabinet in order if it is ultimately to be credible to the whole country.

Diversity matters particularly, not only because Johnson’s government should be reflective of modern Britain, but because diversity makes for better decision-making. The government has regulated for workplace equality, such as by mandating more transparency on gender pay gaps – now it must lead by example, both in junior but also senior ministerial and cabinet ranks.

According to the Sutton Trust, Boris Johnson’s first cabinet was two-thirds privately educated – twice that of the last cabinet I served in, and totally out of kilter with modern Britain, where 93 per cent of people are state-educated. This isn’t about quotas – it’s about having people at the top table who have shared the lived experience of a wide range of people around our country, and can bring that insight to decision-making.

What government needs is more people who truly understand “levelling up” because they themselves have had to battle the system to do so. Johnson should remove those from his government who’ve shown scant interest in the cause of “levelling up” until now, and have only done so latterly because it has been endorsed by the PM.

In reality, what people in our country care about is not the personality politics of who is in the cabinet, but what they achieve. One of the things they need to achieve is a social mobility policy that goes beyond investment in infrastructure.

Because social mobility requires investment in people – something the Treasury has little understanding of how to do on any significant scale. That investment isn’t just about improving healthcare, education or jobs. It’s also about removing the barriers to accessing those things.

Britain still runs on connections, not competence. There is too much unearned privilege. That’s why Johnson needs to articulate what he means by “levelling up”. He must set out where he believes the problems lie; why, despite the efforts of prime ministers before him, Britain hasn’t become a level playing field. Unless the prime minister can do this, he risks funnelling more of taxpayers’ money into a system that remains rigged.

Education is clearly a significant part of how we deliver equal opportunities to Britons. As education secretary, I set out a plan for how. Rather than reinventing the wheel, it’s time to deliver on that strategy. In fact, it’s time to go further, ensuring that every department of government has their own “levelling up” plan in place. In particular, whoever is chancellor needs to carry out root and branch reform of a Treasury department that seems stuck in the past, unable to understand that spending on schools is an investment in all of our futures.

It’s clear that governments don’t have all the solutions to social mobility, nor are they always best-placed to deliver them. Part of the solution is allowing businesses to play a more strategic role in spreading opportunity to young people.

That’s why I left parliament to work on the Social Mobility Pledge campaign I founded in 2018, asking companies to commit to inspiring young people in schools, and to sharing their opportunities with a wider pool of talent.

Businesses are doing their bit to “level up” Britain, shifting away from stuffy recruitment practices to bring talented young people with fresh and diverse perspectives.

Yet if Britain is to fire on all cylinders, so must Boris Johnson’s cabinet.

Our work on the Social Mobility Pledge can get further faster if Johnson uses his reshuffle to show what “levelling up” looks like. On Thursday, the prime minister must prove this is not an empty slogan – that he means business.

Justine Greening is a former education secretary and founder of the Social Mobility Pledge

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