Johnson’s reshuffle shows how fearful he is of upsetting anyone

No one sacked as PM changes team in sign of anxiety about no-confidence vote letters

When Boris Johnson's allies have been looking for someone to blame for his travails in recent weeks, they usually wound up at the door of chief whip Mark Spencer and his team. The whips' role is not only to enforce discipline on MPs but to peer out over the horizon in search of potential trouble, to warn the prime minister and to take preventative action.

Spencer and his team failed to read the Conservative backbenches correctly ahead of a succession of rebellions against government policy in recent months. And he was the chief culprit, along with Jacob Rees-Mogg, for the disastrous attempt to protect Owen Patterson from censure for breaking the rules on lobbying.

So a clear-out of the whips' office has always been on the cards and Johnson delivered that in Tuesday's mini-reshuffle, removing Spencer and his deputy Stuart Andrew. But the prime minister's position is so weak that he was unable to sack either of them, despite the fact that Spencer is under investigation for allegedly telling a fellow MP that she was sacked as a minister because of her "Muslimness".

Spencer becomes leader of the Commons in place of Rees-Mogg, who has been rewarded for his own failure by becoming a full member of cabinet with a brief to exploit the opportunities of Brexit (although he will be kept away from negotiations with the EU). In fact, Johnson was so fearful of upsetting anyone that his reshuffle ended without anyone being sacked from the government.

The prime minister has good reason to be careful because each newly unhappy or disappointed MP could write to 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady calling for a no confidence vote in Johnson's leadership. When the number of letters reaches 54, Brady must call a vote.

The reshuffle followed a shake-up of Johnson's Downing Street team with cabinet office minister Steve Barclay doubling up as his chief of staff and Guto Harri becoming director of communications. Harri made the headlines on his first day in the job with a bizarre interview with a Welsh-language website in which he described Johnson singing Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, adding that the prime minister was "not a complete clown".

More telling about Harri's effectiveness – or the lack of it – has been Johnson's refusal to withdraw or apologise for his smear on Keir Starmer about Jimmy Savile after the Labour leader was surrounded by a mob outside parliament who were repeating the slur. A snap poll by Savanta ComRes found that almost 70 per cent of people think Johnson was wholly or partly to blame for what happened to Starmer and the incident has increased the unease among Conservative MPs.