Wiping the reshuffle blood from his hands and his shoes, Boris Johnson this morning chaired his first Cabinet meeting of what looks very much like Britain’s first proper Brexit government. Under his premiership, the Tory party has overnight become The Brexit Party, not in name but in deed. And the ramifications of that big shift will guide our politics in the coming weeks - and probably years.
Ever since 2016, Remainer ministers have often joked ‘we’re all Brexiteers now!’ Yet the thanks to Johnson’s new political virility test, every member of his new administration now has to smile at the cameras and say ‘we’re all no-dealers now!’ And, taking the cut from their boss, they have to say it like they really mean it. There’s a lot of them too: a record 33 ministers now attend Cabinet (the highest since the Lib-Con coalition).
In many ways, Johnson was simply clearing out the dead wood of the May government and few will really mourn the passing of nice-but-bland figures such as Jeremy Wright or Damian Hinds. The real surprises were sackings for Penny Mordaunt and Jeremy Hunt. Offering Mordaunt’s Defence job to Hunt was pretty cack-handed given he was unlikely to screw over someone who had loyally supported him. Still, every move seemed designed to send a clear message that the new PM would impose his authority in a way Theresa May never dared.
I’ve written HERE my take on yesterday’s extraordinary events, and be in no mistake this was not a reshuffle, it was a radical reboot of the Tories in power. A more diverse, younger Cabinet (it was no surprise new chief secretary Rishi Sunak was on the Today programme) was overdue. Yet the biggest signal of intent was the appointment of ex Vote Leave chief Dominic Cummings as No.10 adviser (pictured above as Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill welcomed the new PM). That’s a move that heralds a dose of electric shock treatment for a Whitehall that has repeatedly tried to help May cut a deal with Brussels.
Three years ago, Johnson’s plan was to use the Vote Leave victory as a springboard to his own premiership, bringing in Cummings to help deliver instantly on the £350m a week promise of extra cash for the NHS. Michael Gove famously threw a spanner in the works, but yesterday felt like Johnson was re-setting the Brexit clock, as we were re-living the day after that stunning victory and it was June 24, 2016 all over again.
Of course, the intervening three years have shown just how complex Brexit really is. And radical surgery is a lot easier when you have a Commons majority to ram it through. Blair, who was accused of a ‘year zero’ approach back in 1997, at least had a huge landslide to help him. The need for a working majority is exactly why yesterday felt like a snap election had suddenly drawn a lot closer.
Cummings knows a lot about how to win campaigns and despite the chatter that Johnson could call a fresh referendum, many of his allies think the only way forward is to call an election. If it is forced on Johnson by a Commons committed to stopping no-deal, he could campaign with the slogan ‘tell them again’. While Labour could counter with ‘nobody voted Leave to be poorer’, the very fact that Brexit hadn’t happened would reduce the power of project fear. Campaigning on a hypothetical Brexit would also allow him to avoid the real-life consequences of no-deal.
If Johnson goes to the country soon after securing a no-deal exit, he knows he could at a stroke kill off the Brexit Party. Some on his team also believe that post-Brexit the Lib Dems would lose their biggest electoral pull (even they won’t campaign to take us back in) and he can battle hard with a post-austerity push of new spending on key public services.
Either way, with the official Opposition struggling with both Brexit clarity (see below) and anti-Semitism, the Johnson camp believe there will never be a better time to hold an election than in the next few months.
Last night, new Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg told ITV’s Peston: “The question on a general election is about actually a vote of confidence and the question there for Conservatives is do they want Jeremy Corbyn…it’s impossible to rule out, looking at the Parliamentary arithmetic.” Iain Duncan Smith told BBC Radio this morning: “It is impossible to say whether we will or we won’t, what I do know is any government worth its salt will prepare for that eventuality.”
Everything about yesterday’s speech and reshuffle felt like the starting gun had been fired on a snap election, whether it takes place this autumn or next spring. When Rishi Sunak told the Today programme that Johnson was “the candidate who can deliver change”, he was referring to the Tory leadership contest. But if the new PM believes he can somehow make himself the ‘changemaker’ in an election against Corbyn, he will roll the dice once more.
This morning, Johnson delivers his first Commons statement as PM and is sure to try to rough up the Labour leader. His real strategy is to force Remainer Tory backbenchers to stay loyal and send his troops away for summer with hope in the hearts. Sir Nicholas Soames on SkyNews had a warning of his own. The grandson of our wartime leader said Johnson was ‘in full Churchill mode...he’s learned you have to have total control’. But ‘he’s created a wall of opposition’ that will mean ‘the inevitable result is a general election’, he added.
What really scares many moderate Tories like Soames is that Johnson has morphed from the social liberal of his London Mayoralty into becoming ‘Britain’s Trump’. His steps-of-No10 speech was also as freewheeling as a Trump speech, riffing like a jazz soloist on everything from animal welfare to broadband, and his press conferences have often been as wild.
But we already knew that both are ‘showmen’ politicians. What’s new is that Johnson seems to be apeing the ‘strongman’ theme too. Note that the other day Trump’s praise of Johnson focused not just on the new Tory leader being ‘smart’ but on him being ‘tough’. The winner-takes-all approach to Brexit and the shock-and-awe reshuffle certainly felt like moves of which The Donald would be proud. Trump was the original US Apprentice host who loved to jab his finger and say ‘you’re fired!’, and Johnson certainly copied that yesterday.
Perhaps the biggest similarity with the US president is that Johnson will in government deliver what he promised on the campaign trail. Some made the big mistake with Trump that he would follow convention that power entails compromise and trim his actions once in the White House. Johnson has backed off his tax cuts for the rich plan, but on Brexit he sounds like he fully intends to carry out no-deal.
There was even a hint in Johnson’s speech yesterday that he was so keen on a US-UK post-Brexit trade deal that he was prepared to relax rules on GM. “Lets start now to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bioscience sector from anti genetic modification rules,” he said, intriguingly.
There’s certainly a constituency for a form of Trumpism in the UK. One man speaking in Eton, home to Johnson’s famous school, put it bluntly on the BBC: “He’s another Trump, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s good - looking after his own people first.” The real risk is that Johnson loses everyone else who finds that approach utterly toxic - and un-British.
Watch Rory Stewart explain why he couldn’t stand as a Tory candidate in a no-deal Brexit general election.
For anti-Brexit campaigners and MPs, the most significant quote of the day yesterday came not from Johnson but from Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman after PMQs. Asked if Labour was a Remain party, he replied: “No...we are not in that zone..We’ve never said that. We’ve said we will campaign for Remain against a damaging Tory deal or against no-deal in a referendum, but there are other circumstances that could occur.” Remainer Twitter went nuts.
On Peston last night, John McDonnell refused to kill off the idea of a Labour Brexit. “My view at the moment I think we’ll almost certainly be remain,” he said. But here’s the kicker: “We’ll see, if he comes back with some sort of deal, we’ll look at that just as we did last time.”
One of the oddest slips in Johnson’s speech yesterday was the way he misspoke the word ‘LGBT’, putting a ‘P’ where the ‘B’ should go. And for all his protestations that he is a social liberal, many in the gay community have not forgotten his infamous ‘jokes’. He’s referred to ‘tank-topped bumboys’, attacked “Labour’s appalling agenda, encouraging the teaching of homosexuality in schools” and compared same-sex marriage to the union of ‘three men and a dog’.
Johnson has since insisted that was all in the distant past. But last night, LGBT campaigners were swift to point out that the appointment of Gavin Williamson means that we now have an Education Secretary who twice voted against gay marriage. Williamson tried to make amends as Defence Secretary by urging the extension of same-sex marriage rights to military personnel. Let’s see how he handles the Birmingham schools row.
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