Boris Johnson is now Prime Minister. His Cabinet is not merely reshuffled but well and truly scattered. Has he created a house of cards from a new deck or is he just the Joker?
An immediate observation is that of diversity. Of the four great offices of state, PM, Chancellor, Home and Foreign Secretaries, none can claim to have a paternal father born in the UK. Boris’s own was Turkish, descended from a Circassion slave. Raab’s father was a Czech Jew who came to this country in 1938.
The new Chancellor’s family came to the country from Pakistan in the 1960s, contrasting with Patel whose Indian Gujerati family had resettled in the UK after being expelled from Uganda under Idi Amin’s regime. Boris was the only one to have been born outside the country, in Manhattan.
These appointments on their own send a powerful message of Britain being a land of opportunity, with a global outlook. In his speech outside Number 10, Boris was clear about rekindling free trade opportunities around the world.
Ethnic diversity is apparent through the rest of the Cabinet, with Alok Sharma at Employment, Rishi Sunak in the Treasury, James Cleverly the new party Chair and Kwasi Kwateng in charge of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Certainly, some women have left the Cabinet, obviously Theresa May, Penny Morduant and Claire Perry. As well as Priti Patel, Liz Truss has been promoted to International Trade with Amber Rudd retaining DWP. Former ministers who had resigned, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, are reinstated. Nicky Morgan and Theresa Villiers, both dispensed with by May, also return.
No doubt much will be made of Jeremy Hunt’s decision to return to the back benches rather than accept an alternative to the Foreign Office. However, it is noted that a number of other announced candidates in the leadership election have stayed or been promoted to the Cabinet; Gove, Cleverly, Javid, Raab, McVey, Hancock and Leadsom.
Notably, the average age of the Cabinet has reduced. At 59, the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox is now the oldest member, none in their 60s left. He retains the same role, as does the youthful Matt Hancock. The only others to hint at continuity are Rudd, DexEU Secretary, Steve Barclay, Leader of the Lords, Baroness Evans and Welsh Secretary Alan Cairns.
The talking points of Boris’s appointments contract with his predecessor, who notably appointed a cabal from her years at Oxford University. Those included Philip Hammond and Damien Green as well as a raft of other non-Cabinet ministers. Boris’s own potential for accusations of nepotism extends to his younger brother, Jo, outspoken for his policy differences with the new PM whilst the Oxford contingent has noticeably reduced.
If the global message is one of diversity and an outward looking Britain, what of the image closer to home?
Many commentators have already suggested a lurch to the right. In some cases, this might be justified, for example in Patel’s advocacy of capital punishment. Raab is one of the more prolific writers on policy, representative to an extent of the free market wing of the party which also includes the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the ERG, now Leader of the House and a font of procedural knowledge.
The undeniable shift is in Brexit Policy. Boris has surrounded himself with senior Cabinet members from the Leave camp, consistent with his aim of having a united Cabinet, committed to exiting the EU on 31st October 2019.
Boris himself is a former Foreign Secretary, Raab having resigned from DexEU over the Withdrawal Agreement. Barclay provides continuity, Cleverly having been a junior minister in the same department until this week. Certainly, those, like Gove, consistently voted in line with the Ministerial Code, Leadsom and McVey, the “blue collar Conservative” option having belatedly resigned at the final hurdles of May’s treaty.
The structure of the new Cabinet undoubtedly sends a strong message to the EU.
On the other hand, the new Prime Minister will be mindful that whilst Cabinet opposition has been minimised, there has been a shift on the back benches. It is a matter for conjecture how rebellious they will be, however, resignation letters present the image that a “no deal” Brexit will be opposed, despite protestations of loyalty to the new PM.
There are some other threats and opportunities for Boris to consider. Below Cabinet level, there are a hundred or so junior appointments that can be made, non Cabinet ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries looking to progress their careers. The full picture will become clear over the next few days.
The new rebel may well prove to be the old guard at Westminster, augmented by a few with ambition, in the vein of Rory Stewart and those already choosing their own margins; Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve and so on.
If there is a touch of genius from Boris, it is in having appointed a Cabinet for the future, both short term and long term.
On the whole, the leadership contenders have been embraced, to a large extent, represented the future of the Conservative Party. Those with ambition have been given an opportunity to prove themselves for the longer term. Perhaps more importantly, the new Cabinet is one of relative youth, dynamism and deeply symbolic of opportunity.
The old guard may huddle on the back benches, making their case for elevation to the House of Lords, itself an incentive to demonstrate loyalty. Retaining a position in Westminster, in whichever house that may be, can be key to lucrative second, third and more incomes from directorships and consultancies.
Rebellion would almost inevitably lead to a general election. The EU parliamentary elections heralded the rise of the Brexit Party. Cameron demonstrated how to win a majority, promising a referendum to harness the Eurosceptic vote.
In the meantime, the Remain vote appears to be split between two main parties, Labour and Liberal Democrats, with others that might currently be viewed as “fringe”, the Green Party and Change UK/TIG or whatever they choose to be called this week.
As ever, time will tell. Boris has taken some gambles, calculated by his team if not him. He can certainly claim a diverse team, embracing opportunity and “bursting with ideas” as he said in his maiden PM speech in parliament. Can he restore the credibility that has been lost under May?
Like him or loathe him, Boris has given his party at least half a chance at electoral success, whether that comes in the short, or longer term.
This post was originally published by the author on his personal blog: http://www.rexn.uk/2019/07/25/the-boris-cabinet/