No sooner had Boris Johnson concluded his ludicrously nostalgic and nationalistic speech on the steps of Downing Street – aimed squarely at the Captain Mainwaring in us – than he unveiled new cabinet members Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Alok Sharma and Rishi Sunak.
The appointment of these non-white ministers, even to the so-called “great ministries of state”, should have been decidedly unremarkable in 2019. But Boris Johnson’s own people had spun it in advance as a reshuffle to “reflect modern Britain” with a “record number of ethnic minority cabinet ministers.”
This showed the PM’s instincts for tokenism. When he wants to virtue signal to all the multicultural marginal constituencies the Tories need to hold – including his own Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat – he sees race. But when faced with demands to do something about race inequality, he claims he doesn’t.
Any hope of giving his new administration a diversity make-over is unlikely to work. As a well-known public figure his standing among ethnic minority voters is pretty much set in stone with no room for growth. It has been like that for some time; his winning 2012 mayoral run saw him do worse in the wards with the most black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani residents than Zac “dogwhistle” Goldsmith did in 2016 when he lost.
Johnson can’t undo his frankly alarming back catalogue of downright offensive and racist remarks, and his cupboard is empty on tackling the issues that matter especially to black and minority ethnic (BME) communities.
His record in London gives us significant clues as how he will operate in No 10. His deputy mayor Munira Mirza had a hand in his ill-fated plan to mentor 1,000 black boys, a project that floundered after Boris vetoed the winning bid and instead awarded the £1.3m contract to a charity of which he was a patron, which promptly collapsed due to financial difficulties.
As PM, Boris takes over a key Theresa May policy, the Racial Disparity Unit (RDU). This emerged from her “burning injustices” speech in Downing Street. First was a Whitehall-wide data-collection exercise which found huge disparities in outcomes among BME people: Caribbean kids are three times as likely to be permanently excluded than white ones, and BME unemployment is nearly double that of white Britons. She then set up an advisory group to work with senior civil servants, to “explain or change”, led by respected Operation Black Vote campaigner Sir Simon Woolley.
Some fear the RDU will be the next victim of Johnson’s urge to send his goons in to slash and burn anything Black. This urge is at root ideologically Thatcherite, but is given cover by Cameronian diversity of appointments. The clearest example of this is Mirza’s broadside in the Spectator against May’s “phoney race war”. She attacked the RDU, the criminal justice review led by David Lammy, and the race in employment review by Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith. For some equality campaigners, May’s steps were modest but moving in the right direction. To Mirza, even this was beyond the pale.
This week Mirza, and another player in the London mentoring crony scandal, Johnson’s chief of staff Sir Edward Lister, followed Johnson into Downing Street. We can therefore expect the PM’s approach on race equality and representation to follow the pattern of City Hall: more black and brown faces while they dismantle race equality initiatives behind the scenes. The RDU process is all the Tories have on race, so any attempt to destroy it will mark the end of tackling racism as far as this government is concerned.
At City Hall Boris used to send his people, like Mirza and Lister, to strangle the life out of worthwhile race equality projects rather than axing them outright. This is how the Operation Trident community advisory committee imploded and the annual black education conference withered. Wherever he smelt the scent of his predecessor Ken Livingstone and his race adviser Lee Jasper was ear-marked for destruction. The game plan was ruthless and positively Trotskyite; take it over, appoint diverse place-people and watch it die.
Johnson’s approach to race is far removed from modern Britain. He must not be allowed to dismantle the RDU.