The Reshuffles: What Does it Mean for UK Foreign Policy?

It’s that time of the year again – MPs have flocked back to parliament after the long summer recess and with it has come reshuffles of the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet. While both Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy managed to retain their positions, the Conservative reshuffle which saw Grant Shapps take up the role of Defence Secretary, and the rather more sizeable reshuffle of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet, send some interesting signals about the future of the two main parties’ foreign policy agendas. Here is everything you need to know.

Grant Shapps becomes Defence Secretary 

Whoever became Defence Secretary was always going to have big shoes to fill, with ex-soldier Ben Wallace well-regarded within his party and beyond. He is seen to have helped the UK lead the way in support for Ukraine, a position of which Britons are immensely proud, and he won significant support from many in defence circles for his forthright advocacy for defence spending.

The appointment of Grant Shapps to his fifth cabinet role this year has had a rather mixed reception so far. While less experienced in defence than his predecessor, and many of the other floated contenders, he is an experienced Cabinet minister. Regarded by his party as a top communicator, his appointment may also signal a Conservative focus on defence during the election, one of the few areas where Conservatives remain more trusted than Labour.

However, many also fear that in appointing a close ally to the role of Defence Secretary, Sunak is hoping for a Defence Secretary who will be rather quieter than his predecessor was, leading to a deprioritisation of defence, or at the very least a quietening of debates around defence spending. Nonetheless, with the Ukraine war placing significant strain on the UK’s ammunition stockpile and planned cuts to UK troop numbers, defence spending will be an issue Shapps struggles to avoid.

Elsewhere, Shapps will have to contend with growing anti-Ukraine sentiment in the United States, which threatens to undermine the Western consensus on Ukraine, the UK’s evolving relationship with China, and the practicalities of implementing the Indo-Pacific tilt. These are no small challenges but given much of his brief has been set out in the 2023 Integrated Review Refresh and the Defence Command paper, we can expect much of the same as under Wallace, just likely at a lower profile.

Claire Coutinho becomes Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero

Shapps’ move to Defence Secretary has freed up space for Coutinho’s first Cabinet position, as she becomes Secretary of State for Energy security and Net Zero, making her the first of the 2019 MP intake to make it into Cabinet. Coutinho’s not been particularly vocal in the past on her views on net zero but with Labour facing significant backlash against ULEZ, and clear divisions emerging in the Conservative party on climate, she’ll be tasked with finding a careful balance for the Conservatives to take headed into the general election. This will prove particularly challenging for her as we move towards another tough winter and COP28, two events that are likely to pull government policy in competing directions.

Lisa Nandy becomes Shadow Cabinet Minister for International Development

Lisa Nandy replaces Preet Gill as Shadow Cabinet Minister for International Development, in an effective demotion from her as role Shadow Levelling Up Secretary. This a move that primarily reflects internal Labour politics (not least concerns that Nandy could be a future leadership contender), rather than any particular Labour policy stance on international development. 

Nonetheless, as a former Shadow Foreign Secretary, Nandy is familiar with the foreign policy beat, bringing some valuable knowledge and expertise to Labour’s foreign policy team. This is crucial given some of the biggest foreign policy questions for Labour headed into the general election will be whether to bring back the Department for International Development (a topic Nandy will no doubt have a clear view on given she doesn’t technically have a government ministry to shadow at present), and whether to restore the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% GNI on international aid and development.

While she was Shadow Foreign Secretary, Nandy was a staunch advocate for focusing on the intersection between domestic and foreign policy, believing that Britons across the country should have a say in, understand, and benefit from UK foreign policy. If she decides to bring that priority to the international development brief she may find an unlikely ally in Andrew Mitchell, Conservative Minister for Development and Africa, who has pledged to increase public support for international aid.

Elsewhere in Labour…

Steve Reed was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) following the resignation of Jim McMahon. A strong advocate for the environment he’ll work closely with Ed Miliband who retains his role as Secretary of State for Climate Change and Net Zero, to lead on Labour’s mission to ‘make the UK a clean energy superpower’.

Meanwhile, Lammy has also retained his role as Foreign Secretary, in a move that reminds us that in reshuffles sometimes who stays is just as interesting as who goes. Lammy’s, and by extension Labour’s, foreign policy centres around the concept of ‘Reconnected Britain’, a set of policies that fairly closely resemble those of the current Conservative government, not least in their ambition to lead in support for Ukraine and to ‘compete, challenge and cooperate’ with China. Lammy’s retention of his role therefore poses important, and as yet unanswered, questions on how exactly Labour will seek to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives on foreign policy headed into a general election.

Where to Next?

The two reshuffles come at an important moment in UK foreign policy. Cleverly’s trip to China looks to start a softening of the UK’s relationship with China, the war in Ukraine continues to rage on (but the Western consensus on the war doesn’t), and the G20 and COP28 Summits are just around the corner. Incoming Ministers and Shadow Ministers, particularly Grant Shapps, face a daunting in-tray. Only time will tell how they (and the UK) will fare.


Evie Aspinall

Evie is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group