ConservativeHome offered Boris Johnson advice on his coming reshuffle over a month ago. Whatever you do, we said, shuffle with purpose. Every single member of your new Cabinet must be signed up to leaving the EU on October 31 – without a deal if necessary. Do or die. All together now. Band of brothers (and sisters). No more Theresa May-era mass resignations over Brexit policy, totting up in the end to over 50, even without taking into account the very last ones. He committed to such an approach in our interview with him later that month.
A question this morning is whether or not the new Prime Minister has followed that train of thought to the point where it crashes into the buffers – and drives uncontrollably through them, leaving a trail of wreckage and corpses in its wake. For he not only fired those Cabinet members who couldn’t support the policy (those that were left, anyway), but went on to sack many of those who surely could have done, or would at least have made their peace with it.
Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Penny Mordaunt, Damian Hinds, David Mundell, James Brokenshire, Karen Bradley, Jeremy Wright – all of these would presumably have rallied round the new leader. Two of them, Fox and Mordaunt, were 2016 Brexiteers. The latter was prominent within Vote Leave. One of them, Brokenshire, was a Johnson voter in the leadership election. Yet the new Prime Minister deliberately chose to bundle them up in no fewer than nine full Cabinet sackings. Greg Clark hung on until the end, while Chris Grayling went of his own volition. That brings the total to ten.
This was the bloodiest Cabinet Walpurgisnacht in modern history – making Macmillan’s night of the long knives look like a day trip to Balamory (although technically the changes marked the start of a new Government, not a shuffle within the old one). Add the ten to the departure of Theresa May, Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Rory Stewart and David Lidington, and one reaches 15. And that’s before getting into the dismissal of MPs entitled to attend, such as Mel Stride and Clare Perry. That’s ten Conservative MPs alienated and in some cases added, perhaps, to the core of perhaps 25 ultra-rebellious Tory Soft Brexiteers and Remainers. And the Government’s majority soon looks to dwindle to one.
There are many ways of assessing the replacements for the departed 15 or so. For a start, there is ethnicity. To Sajid Javid is added Rishi Sunak, now to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury; Alok Sharma at International Development plus, above all, Priti Patel at the Home Office (and of those entitled to attend there is James Cleverly, the new Party Chairman, plus Kwasi Kwarteng). Then there are women: to Patel, we can add Liz Truss at Trade, Andrea Leadsom at Business, Theresa Villiers at Environment, Nicky Morgan at Culture, Amber Rudd at Work and Pensions. This is Johnson’s briefed-in-advance “Cabinet for modern Britain”. May had only three female members of her full Cabinet: Rudd, Mordaunt, Bradley and herself. Javid was the only ethnic minority member.
As for the changes themselves, they seem to us to be a mixed bag. Sunak, Cleverly, Leadsom, Robert Buckland at Justice, Ben Wallace at Defence: these are good appointments. Julian Smith will know the Northern Ireland scene well from his work as Chief Whip. Alister Jack is presumably in because Johnson wants a Leaver at the Scottish Office. Nicky Morgan at Culture can take as her motto the saying of Leo X: “God has given us the papacy – let us enjoy it”. Robert Jenrick, with Sunak one of three authors of a pro-Johnson leadership endorsement, has a big promotion to housing. Their co-signatory, Oliver Dowden, will be a Cabinet Office Minister “entitled to attend”.
He will be among a swelling group of people: no fewer than ten, including Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House. The new Prime Minister is doing nothing to make the Cabinet more compact. The site would have preferred to see Theresa Villiers back at Northern Ireland rather than pitched in to Michael Gove’s shoes at Environment. The big experiment will be exposing Gavin Williamson to the electorally-sensitive world of teachers and parents.
But if you want to locate the key to this reshuffle, it isn’t ethnicity, or gender, or finding horses for courses. Rather, it is support for Johnson himself – and for Brexit. Rudd is the only declared Hunt voter to survive. Morgan plumped for Gove. Everyone else voted either for Johnson, right from the start of this contest, or at least after elimination themselves (if we know what they did at all). Furthermore, 15 out of the 32 people eligible to gather round the Cabinet table voted Leave in 2016, compared to seven out of 29 in May’s last Cabinet.
Dom Raab at the Foreign Office – First Secretary of State, to boot – plus Patel, and Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office, working hand in glove with Dominic Cummings, while Steve Barclay hangs on at DexEU. These are all general election-ready, Vote Leave veterans. One has the spooky sensation, looking at this Cabinet and leadership, that the year is somehow 2016 – and that we now have the Government that we should have had then, ready at last to counter the charge that Vote Leave scurried away from Brexit, rather than manning up to deliver it.
Yes, the slaugher is spectacular. And yes, the demotion of Hunt was unwise – though perhaps not so much so as his own refusal to take responsibility in government for our armed forces. But look at it all another way. Johnson stood accused of being a soft touch – indecisive; yielding; vacant. So one can scarcely complain when he wields – not least before those who look on from abroad – the power that the premiership still has. Brexiteers are accused of not taking responsibility. After this shuffle, they can’t be: Johnson and Patel and Raab and company are unmistakably, unmissably in charge.
Remainers and Leavers alike can converge on a shared point. Vote Leave helped to create Brexit. Let their leaders now own it. If one asks for decisiveness – for an end to drift – one can scarcely complain when it’s delivered.