Cabinet reshuffle: Julian Smith and Andrea Leadsom out

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith and Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom are the first casualties as Boris Johnson begins a cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Smith was the first senior minister to be sacked – he was in his cabinet role for 204 days.

Esther McVey is also out as housing minister as the prime minister re-jigs his top team.

Most of the cabinet were appointed when Mr Johnson became prime minister in July.

Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, paid tribute to Mr Smith following his sacking, saying his dedication to the role had been “incredible”.

She tweeted: “Spoke with JulianSmithUK a short time ago to thank him for his help in getting devolution restored. We may not have always agreed (we did sometimes) but his dedication to the role was incredible. Best wishes to him and his family. Always welcome in Fermanagh.”

The prime minister left his cabinet largely untouched following his party’s decisive election victory in December, pending what sources suggested at the time would be a more significant overhaul after the UK left the EU on 31 January.

A Downing Street source told the BBC the PM would “reward those MPs who have worked hard to deliver on this government’s priorities to level up the whole country and deliver the change people voted for last year”.

Senior figures such as Chancellor Sajid Javid, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Priti Patel are not expected to be moved, but others are considered more vulnerable.

Mr Johnson is expected to make changes at junior ministerial level – namely parliamentary under-secretaries of state – that could see a 50/50 gender balance in a push to promote female talent.

There is also a plan to make at least 60% of parliamentary private secretaries women by the summer – compared with just 18% at the moment.

A reshuffle is a time of high anxiety for Cabinet ministers, who have been told to cancel all engagements so they are available to take a call from the PM.

One told me that they’re all paranoid, but desperately pretending not to be.

After the election, there were well-briefed reports that there would be a reorganisation of Whitehall departments and a Cabinet cull.

But it’s just seven months since Boris Johnson took over from Theresa May and got rid of most of her ministers. The speculation now is of a more limited reshuffle.

All eyes will be on Michael Gove who has been tipped to be the minister to oversee Brexit trade talks.

As for who could be on the way out, the names that crop up most among ministers are Andrea Leadsom and Theresa Villiers, but Downing Street will be mindful of gender balance in the top team.

A modest reshuffle would also encourage Conservative MPs to stay loyal, in the hope of promotion further down the line.

There are expected to be promotions for a number of female MPs in government, including Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Suella Braverman and Gillian Keegan.

Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Dowden and International Development Secretary Alok Sharma are also expected to get more prominent roles.

A No 10 source said: “The prime minister wants this reshuffle to set the foundations for government now and in the future, [and] to promote a generation of talent that will be promoted further in the coming years.”

‘Uncomplaining’

But others in the current cabinet are in less secure positions.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said he would be “uncomplaining” if, as some expect, he is sacked or moved.

Asked about his future during a talk at the Institute for Government think tank, Mr Cox said it had been the “greatest honour” of his working life to serve the government as its chief law officer.

“If you gave me the opportunity to continue, I would embrace it eagerly but equally if it is not to be, there will be other doorways that will open for me.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock joked at an event in London: “It’s a huge pleasure to be here, and with a government reshuffle in the offing, it’s a great time to be talking about longevity.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the BBC it was up to the prime minister who was in his top team.

“I’ve been in this game long enough to know that British cabinet reshuffles are brutal,” he told the BBC during a trip to Brussels, where he is attending a meeting of Nato defence ministers.

“I am keen to serve. I enjoy the job of defence secretary. I’m a veteran, I’m a northern MP. I was actually in the army. So I think all those hopefully qualify me, but who knows?”

When she was re-appointed as Culture Secretary in December, Nicky Morgan said she only expected to stay in the role for a couple of months, having stood down as an MP at the election and appointed a peer.

Among more junior ministers, those tipped for promotion include Victoria Atkins, Oliver Dowden, Kwasi Kwarteng and Lucy Frazer, while Stephen Barclay could make a quick return to cabinet after his role as Brexit Secretary was scrapped following the UK’s departure from the EU.

Mr Johnson is expected to appoint a new minister to oversee the building of the HS2 rail line, final approval for which was given this week.

He also needs to find someone to run the Cop 26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year after its previous president Claire Perry O’Neill was sacked, and two former Tory leaders, David Cameron and Lord Hague, rejected the job.

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