Slowly but surely, Theresa May has begun to fill the ranks of her cabinet, a process involving merciless sackings on one hand and conciliatory appointments on the other.
The cabinet appointment that has drawn the most attention, at least from American commentators, is the naming of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. Johnson, the most visible figure in the Leave campaign, will thus command the reigns of the U.K.’s foreign policy as diplomat-in-chief, holding one of the top four offices in government. On the surface level, it looks like May has adopted a stance of reconciliation with her former rival.
Or has she? Take a closer look and May’s decision to appoint Johnson as foreign secretary begins to look particularly astute. The Foreign Office’s powers under Johnson will be much reduced: David Davis has been named minister for leaving the European Union, and Liam Fox is the new Secretary for International Trade. Neither of those positions existed before yesterday. (All three men were Brexiteers, meaning May has made good on her promise to let Brexiteers handle Brexit.) The net effect of their creation is to remove power over Brexit and international trade from the Foreign Office’s remit. What, then, is Johnson supposed to do as diplomat-in-chief?
The answer is that he will have to try very hard not to make himself look like a fool. A Foreign Secretary without substantial powers over the dominant foreign-relations issues of the day will have a hard time adding to his resume signature accomplishments about which he can boast in a future leadership contest. But Johnson, already given to goofiness, will run a high risk of embarrassing himself in a major diplomatic meeting with, say, the president of Turkey, about whom Johnson recently wrote a rather vulgar poem. May has thus placed Johnson in an unenviable position: a high minister of state on the surface, but in fact a very precarious position for a politician of Johnson’s temperament. The position of Foreign Secretary will provide few opportunities for Johnson to distinguish himself, but many routes to embarrassment. If May is interested in protecting her position at the top, she chose a good way to go about it.
Other cabinet appointments — or the lack thereof — are intriguing. Andrea Leadsom, a Brexiteer and May’s final challenger for the keys to 10 Downing Street, has moved from Energy to Environment. As The Guardian notes, that position comes with more significance than you might think: The Environment Secretary must grapple with farmers who will lose their subsidies from the European Union once Brexit goes through. Again, the promise to have Brexiteers in charge of Brexit holds.
George Osborne, once widely favored to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, has been sacked as chancellor of the exchequer and was not offered another position in government. Philip Hammond, a bland politician if there ever was one, has vacated the Foreign Office (leaving the opening Johnson filled) to replace Osborne. Michael Gove, who backstabbed Johnson out of the Tory leadership contest, has been sacked as justice minister and will retreat to the backbenches — a shame for Gove, but not for his one-nation message, which May largely shares. The message from May is a clear one: I want people I can trust by my side. Few compromises will be made. This pattern fits well with May’s no-nonsense, no-sentimentality model of governance.
The cabinet isn’t full yet; new appointments are trickling in as the day goes by. But the main takeaway from the appointments we have so far, I’d say, is that May really is committed to Brexit, and her appointment of Brexiteers to the ministries that will handle affairs relating to Brexit puts that commitment on full display. Brexit may take years to fully implement, but we now have the picture of who’s going to be doing it.