Boris Johnson’s cabinet picks were more exercises in political messaging than anything else – the primary message being that his would be a government willing and able to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. But, as Theresa May learned to her ultimately fatal cost, junior appointments are just as important for the coherence of any government, and its ability to get things done.
Has Johnson learned the lesson his predecessor didn’t? His first reshuffle of the middle and lower rungs of government has, like May’s, involved some unceremonious sackings: Stephen Hammond, the health minister, and Harriett Baldwin, the Africa minister, were both swiftly dismissed. But Hammond is a habitual rebel on no-deal and Baldwin was a prominent supporter of Jeremy Hunt. Neither, despite their experience in government, are cast in the image that Team Johnson wants to project to the Conservative Party and indeed the world. In this respect it is who the prime minister has recruited to replace Baldwin and Alan Duncan, who quit before his coronation, that is particularly enlightening of his priorities for government.
Johnson’s two new hires at the Foreign Office are Chris Pincher, the former deputy chief whip, and Andrew Stephenson, another former whip and latterly a junior business minister. Both backed Brexit in 2016, as well as Johnson’s leadership campaign. Taken together with Dominic Raab, they add up to a team without a single Remainer. In those departments directly involved with implementing or selling Brexit, there is neither the appetite nor political space for diversity of opinion on the government’s defining position.
Only those who backed Brexit or Johnson’s leadership campaign and have reconciled themselves to no-deal – the precondition for service in his government – have been appointed to other delivery roles, as is the case with his cabinet: be it Chris Heaton-Harris and George Freeman at Transport, or George Eustice and Therese Coffey at Defra.
The hires that he didn’t make also reveal much about the nature of his Brexit strategy. Steve Baker, the leader of the 28 Eurosceptics who voted against the withdrawal agreement three times, did not get the cabinet post he felt he deserved but was instead turned down his old junior post at Dexeu, a department that has been denuded of both meaningful control of negotiations and no-deal planning. The control Johnson’s Downing Street intends to exert over Whitehall’s approach to Brexit doesn’t just extend to which minister gets what job, but who they are answerable to. In this case, much to the Brexiteers’ displeasure, it is Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. It is an administration wired to minimise the risk of the competing power bases that blighted May’s first two years in office.
Junior appointments in other departments provide big clues as to Johnson’s priorities for government – or an election campaign. Kit Malthouse, one of his most trusted lieutenants from City Hall, has been given the post of policing minister rather than the cabinet post many of his colleagues had assumed he was in line for. But his appointment speaks to the importance of law and order to the prime minister’s political platform: 20,000 new police officers was, after all, his first policy announcement in office. Johnson makes much of his mayoral record on crime, which was an issue he in fact delegated to Malthouse as deputy mayor for policing. That he has done so again is telling.
The same is true of Esther McVey, who has a seat at the cabinet table, albeit only as a junior housing minister with attendance rights. Though her own leadership tilt failed badly at the first hurdle, McVey is a quietly influential figure among the sort of Conservative MPs that the Prime Minister looks to for electoral cues: those who won Leave seats from Labour in the North and Midlands.
Her blue-collar conservatism platform is much admired by this group, which Johnson will have to expand quite dramatically at an election if his gamble on Brexit is to pay off. Housing – and specifically the building of more homes for shared ownership – is a cornerstone of its policy programme. Add to that McVey’s reputation as a strong (if divisive) media performer and the thinking behind her appointment is clear: she is to be the public face of a policy that, like policing, Johnson hopes will pay dividends among Brexit voters in the Ashfields and Bishop Aucklands of the country come an election.
One would struggle to describe it as an administration with a ecumenical feel. But that is precisely the point.