Before Boris unveiled his new cabinet, the newspapers would have prepared a choice of three headlines: It’s Continuity Boris; Tory Unity Rules for Boris; and Boris’s Remainer Bloodbath! My guess would then have been that headline No. 2 would be chosen. And now that the list of cabinet ministers is almost complete, we can see it contains a respectable tally of (former) Remainers. In fact, there’s an almost 50–50 split between (former) Remainers and Leavers. But the third headline is the one that best reflects the massive transformation that the new Boris Johnson cabinet represents.
Forget that both the new and dismissed cabinet ministers are all Tories. That’s beginning to seem a historic description. What this new cabinet or — as some commentators have rightly observed — this new government signifies is that a Remainer administration has been replaced by a Brexiteer administration almost as completely as after a general election defeat.
That’s owing in part to the decision of six members of May’s cabinet to resign either as a protest against the new prime minister or to avoid being pushed out. They were not minor figures, either, but included the former chancellor Philip Hammond, the former justice secretary David Gauke, the former international-development secretary (and leadership candidate) Rory Stewart, and of course Theresa May herself.
In addition to those who left semi-voluntarily, Boris sacked another eleven ministers — and that number will certainly rise as the reshuffle continues. Again, those who got their pink slips included major figures in the last administration — notably, the former foreign secretary (and leadership runner-up) Jeremy Hunt, the former defense secretary Penny Mordaunt, the former trade secretary Liam Fox, and the former deputy prime minister David Lidington.
Nine of the departed had backed Jeremy Hunt in the leadership contest; most were also Remainers whom the new prime minister probably felt had not changed their spots. But the overall effect reminded the London Times of Johnson’s response to a quickfire question about his favorite film scene in a recent interview: “The multiple retribution killings at the end of The Godfather.”
Many of their replacements are firm Brexiteers, but not all, as I wrote above. All are prepared, however, to sign on to Boris’s condition that they will support a No Deal Brexit if an EU–U.K. deal proves impossible to strike. And, still more important, the four great offices of state — the prime ministership, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, and the Treasury — are all in the hands of reliable Brexiteers (if we include, as we probably should, Chancellor Sajid Javid, a reluctant Remainer who has since got religion.)
What has caught the headlines, however, is that three of the four positions are held by the children of immigrants: Sajid Javid is the son of Pakistani immigrants, Home Secretary Priti Patel is the daughter of Ugandan Asian refugees, and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is the son of a Czech refugee from Hitler. As someone who is indifferent to the diversity cult — I would be happy with a cabinet entirely composed of women and Asians if they were all clones of Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew — I am content with these appointments because all three have shown ability and courage in their still early careers. But there is little doubt that these appointments have created an atmosphere of excitement and optimism around the reshuffle.
Standing back from the immediate headlines, however, how should we judge Boris’s first major test — and what it portends for the future? My view is that it passes three tests.
- It’s an extraordinarily bold and even ruthless reshuffle. Boris has shown that he is a good butcher, which, according to the maxim, is what any successful prime minister has to be. He has dispatched enemies and made friends by his appointments and dis-appointments. In particular, when Jeremy Hunt refused to accept the defense portfolio he was offered in return for surrendering the Foreign Office, Boris refused to be frightened into giving him one of the top three jobs that Hunt had demanded as the runner-up in the leadership election. Boris responded by dismissing him altogether. That demonstrated Boris is not just a Bertie Wooster. He thus passes Machiavelli’s test: He has eliminated rivals and created allies. Of course, he’ll need the latter quite soon.
- Though it’s a bold reshuffle, it’s protected against the more obvious attacks on Boris and the Tory party from the media and the (soft and hard) Left. Given the prominence of senior cabinet ministers with migrant backgrounds, the reshuffle is armored against the charges that the Boris wing of Brexiteer Toryism is a Nazi-Fascist-alt-Right one. Yes, there are Remainiac cranks who believe that sort of thing. But most of them are in a mood of angry frustration today. And given the number of women in senior ministerial positions, charges of misogyny look pretty silly as well. And with a broad balance between the Tory Right and Left in the cabinet, it can’t even be argued persuasively that the hard Right (if it actually existed) has taken over. Boris shot any number of the Left’s foxes in the reshuffle. Altogether, there is a sense of freshness, confidence, and liveliness about the transformation — far more so than even his most enthusiastic supporters expected.
- It’s a reshuffle and a cabinet designed to fight a hard political battle to finally get Brexit passed either in Parliament or, if MPs vote it down, in an early election.
And there will be major battles to come before long. Some of the cabinet ministers who resigned rather than serving under Boris, notably Philip Hammond and Rory Stewart, are already plotting a Remainer resistance to anything that smacks of a No Deal Brexit. They will now be joined by some of the ministers he dismissed. The Remainer media — the BBC, the Times, the Financial Times, and the Economist — will support this resistance, not only because they oppose Brexit but also to protect their own reputation as forecasters. So far they have been consistently wrong on whether May’s Withdrawal Agreement would get through the Commons. Political reporters and “expert” columnists were certain it would win in the end. Now, they are reassembling to argue that if Boris can get anything like an amended May deal through the Commons, he can win an early election before its defects become clear. They assume that the former Remainers in his cabinet will join their campaign from within because there is less in their promise to support a No Deal Brexit than meets the eye: They will have decided in advance that any amended deal the EU offers will be a satisfactory one. That now looks unlikely.
Until a couple of days ago, Boris had one great card to play against this last-ditch Remainer campaign: As Tory leader, he controls the party machine, the next Tory manifesto, and the selection (and de-selection) of Tory candidates. If his Brexit policy loses in Parliament, he can take his case to the country as the Brexit supported by the entire Tory party. Nigel Farage will then be someone he has to satisfy more seriously than any Tory Remainer. Now, he has a second great card: His cabinet looks as though it will give him firm and united support if rebellious Tory MPs give him the excuse to go for an election and a Brexit-minded parliament. too. And the Pound rallied yesterday — which wasn’t supposed to be the market’s response to either Boris or the looming threat of a No Deal Brexit.