Jacob Rees-Mogg has been made minister for Brexit opportunities as Boris Johnson kicked off a reshuffle designed to shore up his position following the Partygate scandal.
Chief whip Mark Spencer has been moved to Mr Rees-Mogg’s former role as leader of the Commons, with a seat in cabinet.
He was replaced as chief whip by Chris Heaton-Harris, who played a leading role in the parallel whipping system set up by the prime minister under the codename Operation Save Big Dog to shore up support as Tory MPs demanded his resignation over parties at No 10.
Deputy chief whip Stuart Andrew was moved to Michael Gove’s levelling up department as housing minister. Labour immediately pointed out that the new housing minister voted against their proposals in 2016 to require landlords to make rented properties “fit for human habitation”.
The party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner accused Johnson of “reshuffling the deckchairs when he’s already hit an iceberg”, while ignoring debates called by Labour in the Commons on the cost of living crisis and mental health.
“Today, the Labour Party frontbench was in parliament proposing measures to tackle food poverty caused by an inflation crisis created in Downing Street and supporting the mental health of our children and young people – vital topics affecting families across the country,” said Ms Rayner.
“What was Boris Johnson doing? Reshuffling the deckchairs when he’s already hit an iceberg. Labour is committed to security, prosperity and respect for everyone. Boris Johnson is desperately trying to save his own skin.” Mr Rees-Mogg will be a minister in the Cabinet Office in the newly-created role of minister for Brexit opportunities and government efficiency, and will also retain his seat in the cabinet.
He is the first minister to be devoted to Brexit since the resignation of David Frost in December, though responsibility for negotiations with Brussels over issues like the Northern Ireland Protocol remains with foreign secretary Liz Truss.
The North East Somerset MP and fervent Brexiteer famously once said that it could be 50 years before the UK reaped the benefits from EU withdrawal.
Mr Spencer’s move comes after he came under fire internally over the botched attempt to save Owen Paterson from punishment for breaching lobbying rules, after Mr Johnson was forced into a U-turn by backbenchers angry at being whipped into supporting his old ally.
And there was controversy after the vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, William Wragg, spoke to police about whipping practices which he claimed amounted to blackmail, including alleged threats to withdraw government funding from rebels’ constituencies.
The shake-up was triggered by Mr Johnson’s decision to appoint Stephen Barclay chief of staff in No 10 as part of his promise to show that Downing Street was changing in the wake of the Partygate affair.
The appointment of a minister to a role normally held by a civil servant sparked concern that Mr Barclay would be unable to combine his new duties with the wide-ranging responsibilities of his other job of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Mr Johnson made further changes to transfer some of Mr Barclay’s portfolio to other ministers.
Paymaster general Michael Ellis was given the additional post of minister for the Cabinet Office, while Heather Wheeler was appointed a junior minister in the Cabinet Office, in addition to her current role as an assistant whip.
SNP deputy leader in Westminster Kirsten Oswald said: “No amount of shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic can stop Boris Johnson’s sleaze-ridden government from sinking further into chaos.
“The prime minister broke the rules and misled parliament. His lies and slurs have debased politics, and he has become a distraction from the issues that really matter – like the Tory cost of living crisis, which has spiralled out of control.
“Tory MPs must finally show him the door. The longer he remains in post, the more damage he will do to any remaining public trust in the UK government.”