Front Row to Front Bench: The New Cabinet in Context

Writing for Fashion Roundtable, APDIG Manager Jack Tindale commented on the first few weeks of Boris Johnson's new Cabinet, highlighting the complex ideological composition and the policy direction and Brexit pressures it faces over the coming months. 

Britain is used to rapid changes of Government. Unlike the 72 days that the average transition period takes in the United States (itself an innovation, prior to the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, the new President was not sworn into office until March, nearly four months after election day), it is common for a new Prime Minister to be appointed the morning after a general election, or the day after assuming the Party Leadership. They then announce their Cabinet the following day, fill other roles over the weekend, and get on with the formal business of Government at the start of the following week.

However, even by this rapid comparatively rapid process, Mr Johnson’s handover of power was notable not just for speed but for its brutality. Theresa May’s purge of the supporters of George Osborne when she assumed the Premiership in 2016 was noted at the time, but now seems to be an act of supine mercy in contrast to the massacre that took place on the evening of 24th July. 

In 1962, Harold Macmillan famously dismissed a third of his Cabinet in what was immediately dubbed the Night of the Long Knifes. Macmillan later expressed regret at the brutality in which he carried out the reshuffle, which had been intended to revitalise the Government in the face of lagging polls and a succession of poor by-election results. In particular, the then-Prime Minister expressed sorrow at his replacement of the Chancellor, Selwyn Lloyd, with Reginald Maudling, which he came to see as a betrayal of a man who had otherwise been a close ally and confidant. 

If Mr Johnson has any such views, he clearly is keeping them very much to himself. At a swoop, almost the entire Cabinet was swept away. Eleven members of the Cabinet were sacked, with six resigning prior to their expected dismissal. Despite the new Prime Minister’s Damascene conversion to a possible ‘No Deal’ outcome to the referendum, simply being an original Leave supporter in the Brexit Referendum was not enough to guarantee survival. Penny Mordaunt, only installed as Defence Secretary in May, was sacked from that role, despite being widely liked and respected in a notoriously difficult position. Her crime seemed to be less to do with her position on Brexit and more for backing Mr Johnson’s rival for Number 10. That rival, Jeremy Hunt, returned to the backbenchers despite putting on a more spirited campaign than many expected. The consolation prize of replacing Ms Mordaunt at the MoD was seemingly offered only in expectation that it would not be accepted. 

However, even backing the then backbencher’s campaign for the Tory Leadership was not enough to ensure one’s survival. James Brokenshire, the Housing Secretary, had been first out of the gates in endorsing Mr Johnson’s run for the Premiership and on the front-row of the campaign launch. His reward seems to be to have more time to spend representing the constituents of Old Bexley and Sidcup.

When the dust cleared, however, we find a Cabinet of contradictions. It is neither more explicitly Leave than Theresa May’s administration was. It certainly appears more ethnically diverse – with two British Asians in the Great Offices of State and more in more junior Cabinet roles. However, it is also one that is more ideologically committed to the possibility of a No Deal Brexit, in contrast to the tightrope balancing act that Mrs May assembled. Former Remain backers and notional pragmatists, including the former Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, returned to Ministerial Office, serving under a Prime Minister who has made it clear that leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement is a likely outcome. 

It would be impossible, therefore, to give a formal run-down of the new Ministers. Individual stances and positions seem less relevant than at any time in the recent part, given that this is very much a Cabinet tasked with delivering Brexit by any means necessary. That said, it is possible to identify a number of policy shifts compared with the last Government.

The first is one of public finances. The former Chancellor, Philip Hammond, was very much committed to maintaining a firm approach to cutting the deficit and public spending. In this role, he can largely be judged to have been successful. Despite the pressures of Brexit and a worsening international situation resulting from – amongst others – the protectionist approaches of the Trump Administration and various disputes in the Pacific Rim, the Treasury had largely eliminated the structural deficit by last year. Aside from repayment on borrowing repayments, Government spending had largely returned to levels not seen since the late 1990s. Despite this, it is understood that the Chancellor refused to agree to spending commitments being mooted by Downing Street during the final days of the May Premiership. 

Sajid Javid, despite his reputation as an arch-Thatcherite and Objectivist, does not seem to have the same scruples as his predecessor. In his first speech to the nation, rapid-fire such at is was, Mr Johnson rattled off a shopping list of spending commitments, a Northern Powerhouse Railway here, 10,000 new police officers there, high-speed broadband for every household. Such policies would not come cheap even in ideal economic circumstances – with the country facing down the barrel of unilateral withdrawal from the European Union and WTO trading relations – it would, in the immortal words of Sir Humphrey, be considered ‘brave’. The current noises from the Treasury sound awfully similar to economic pump priming ahead of an imminent general election, an outcome that seems very likely to take place given the Government’s effective working majority of three. 

In a similar way, the new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, appears somewhat of a contradiction from past policy stances. After famously clashing with Ian Hislop in 2011 on the reintroduction of the death penalty, the Home Office she now needs seems to be following the more liberal attitudes to immigration policy that Mr Javid had begun making towards the tail-end of the May Premiership. The hardline attitude to reducing levels of immigration have always been considered to have been pushed very strongly by Theresa May as Home Secretary under David Cameron and later as Prime Minister in her own right. Since then, Mr Javid and Ms Patel have both announced the scrapping of the “tens of thousands” target for net immigration levels, as well as requesting the independent  Migration Advisory Committee to revisit their initial recommendations for the post-Brexit immigration system. Although the new Cabinet are aligned in their view of ending free movement of European citizens following Brexit, this is nevertheless one area where the new Government appears to be more liberal than the preceding one. Last week, the Prime Minister himself personally took to Facebook to announce the loosening of restrictions on highly-skilled scientists entering the UK.  

This should not be a surprise in of itself. Mr Johnson has always considered himself to be on the moderate-wing of the Conservative Party in this policy area, famously backing an amnesty for illegal immigrants as Mayor of London and repeating this desire whilst being the headline campaigner for the Vote Leave campaign. It is unknown if this rhetoric will see real action in the coming months, but other policies, such as taking international students out of the immigration figures all together, are far likelier now than they appeared six months ago. 

Yet it is through the prism of Brexit that the new Cabinet must be viewed. It is a body tasked of a singular desire in the same way that previous emergency Governments have been constituted. In the past few weeks, Mr Johnson and his administration have been compared to Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle – but it perhaps to Robert Peel that we may cast our eye. Peel, formally a typical High Tory, moderated his positions. Eventually staring down the so-called ‘Ultras’ in his own party in order to force through Catholic Emancipation, electoral reform, and the abolition of the Corn Laws. The cost, of course, was the disintegration of the old Tory Party and set the seeds for the establishment of today’s Conservative Party. Whether Mr Johnson sees this as a course of action to follow remains a matter of some debate – as does his role in all this. Will he be this decade’s Robert Peel, a more pragmatic Duke of Wellington, or will he be its Winchilsea?