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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:05pm

Boris Johnson’s new cabinet won’t be able to disguise the troubles he faces

By Patrick Maguire

What will Boris Johnson’s cabinet look like? The new Conservative leader will start answering the question animating Westminster more than any other once he replaces Theresa May as prime minister this afternoon.

Having won such a crushing victory over Jeremy Hunt yesterday, Johnson has, if nothing else, a mandate to reshape the cabinet as he sees fit. His aides brief this morning’s papers that his will be a team that reflects “modern Britain”, with a record number of ethnic minority cabinet ministers and more top jobs for women than at present.

So we can expect to see promotions for familiar faces: Sajid Javid (quite possibly the next chancellor), Priti Patel (tipped for home secretary), Liz Truss, and Nicky Morgan are among those in line for big jobs. Junior ministers tipped to join them include Rishi Sunak, Alok Sharma and Tracey Crouch. There are also several questions unresolved too: most notably whether Hunt can be moved from the Foreign Office, whether Amber Rudd stays at the top table, and whether other Brexit ultras will join Patel at it.

Just who Johnson appoints to which jobs will illuminate the broad contours of his strategy on Brexit, as well as on that domestic agenda we’ve also been promised. In this crucial respect, diversity — today’s watchword and source of sunny headlines — could well be his administration’s undoing in the longer term. 

The Conservative Party has done a decent impression of a coherent entity in the past 24 hours: Johnson’s chief whip, the universally-liked backroom operator Mark Spencer, has been praised as an inspired appointment by just about every one of his MPs. From the corridor outside, Johnson’s first meeting with his parliamentary party sounded more like a football match than any of Theresa May’s funereal appearances at the 1922 Committee. For now, the vast majority of Tory MPs have rowed in behind “the dude” — Johnson’s pledge to “deliver Brexit, unite the UK, defeat Corbyn and energise Britain”.

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But the appearance of coherence isn’t the same as the reality and there is no sign that Johnson’s cabinet will be able to agree on what any one of those propositions can or should mean in practical terms. It is far from clear, to put it politely, that the EU27 is willing to engage in the sort of conversation that would result in the next prime minister winning the concessions he wants. 

It is far from clear, after his campaign promise to nuke the withdrawal agreement and accept nothing less than no-deal if necessary, that those concessions would convince the hardest Brexiteers in his cabinet to swallow a compromise. And that’s before you consider domestic policy, knotty questions of tax and spending, the profound divisions — and growing number of potential rebels — over no-deal (or, don’t forget, a deal) on the backbenches.

Taken together, it is likely to add up to an administration at least as unstable as this one. Johnson’s gamble is that through sheer force of will and personality he can do what Theresa May couldn’t and unite the fissiparous Tory coalition around a Brexit policy. But there is little evidence that he can — and whichever way he interprets his thumping mandate, he will soon run into trouble.