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  1. Politics
22 October 2018updated 07 Jun 2021 3:21pm

What does Boris Johnson’s brutal cabinet cull tell us about his premiership?

By Patrick Maguire

So much for party unity: Boris Johnson has replaced 17 of Theresa May’s top team in a cabinet purge of unprecedented scale and brutality. But what does the new Prime Minister’s cull of the old guard tell us about how he intends to govern?

Though it was long clear from Johnson’s uncompromising campaign rhetoric on Brexit that he really wasn’t for turning on the question of leaving without a deal, and that any reshuffle would see a clear out of those most closely associated with his predecessor’s regime, not even his supporters expected a cull so swift, broad-ranging and unceremonious. All but one of Jeremy Hunt’s supporters, including the runner-up himself, were given the boot. It wasn’t quite the “love-bombing” Johnson had promised his rival after his victory. More actual bombing.

Yet two decisions made by the Prime Minister yesterday meant that it was always inevitable that he would interpret his huge mandate from Conservative members not as a licence to reverse ferret, but to radically reshape the government. The first was the appointment of Dominic Cummings, the former Vote Leave chief, as his most senior adviser, with a brief to coordinate Brexit preparations across Whitehall. The second was his inaugural speech, in which he repeated his uncategorical promise to ensure the UK left the EU at any cost by 31 October, and complete disavowal of any plausible compromise with Brussels and Dublin on a deal.

Both add up to an administration that will very quickly find it exists to do one thing only: prepare for a no-deal Brexit. What every member of Johnson’s team has in common, be they Priti Patel, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Amber Rudd or even Robert Buckland – who just four months ago was defying the whip to stop a no-deal outcome – is that they are at the very least reconciled to what Johnson believes is the political necessity of leaving without an agreement. In normal times, sacking so many ministers so brutally would be inadvisable, particularly for a government with the most divisive defining policy in living memory and a majority of one. But it is hard to argue that yesterday was anything but a success for Johnson in the short term.

Why? It sends an unambiguous signal about the priorities of his government to his party and the public, for one. It leaves him in a better position to avoid the interminable divisions and clashes of worldview that so often left May’s cabinet gridlocked. And if you have concluded that you are going to be forced into an early election by parliament or Brussels anyway, as Johnson manifestly has, then the dynamics of this Commons naturally matter less than the sort of clear messaging Cummings is known for. Johnson’s pledges to spend big on schools, the police, infrastructure make more sense as election pledges than they do serious objectives for a minority government. Yesterday didn’t tell us how he intends to govern – he’s unlikely to be able to do much of that – but how he intends to campaign.

What’s less clear, to put it mildly, is whether going to the country on a no-deal platform with a cabinet that will write the opposition’s attack leaflets for them – be it Priti Patel on the death penalty or Dominic Raab on feminism – is necessarily that wise a strategy for a party facing a resurgent Lib Dems and slumping among social liberals and Remainers. The lesson from yesterday, however, is that we’re going to find out before long.

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