As Boris Johnson began what was to become an historically drastic cull of cabinet ministers on Wednesday evening, figures from around Westminster gathered, as you might expect, at the pub. Standing in the shade of the Red Lion on that sweltering evening, pints in hand, a game began: spotting, among the tourists and the suited mandarins, the Tories on their way to Downing Street for either a sacking or the promotion of their dreams. Grant Shapps shuffled past on his way to become Transport Secretary. Priti Patel power-walked under the scaffolding, shortly to be anointed Home Secretary.
Among those reacting to each new appointment was a prominent member of the European Research Group, for whom one stood out: the sacking of Penny Mordaunt as Defence Secretary. “It’s a very, very bad decision,” he said starkly, adding that she was capable, well-liked across the party, and a true believer in Brexit. “I’m so surprised.”
Mordaunt’s sacking was, of course, a shock across Whitehall: it hadn’t been briefed out to the press; she had only been at Defence for three months as the first woman in the role; and it was widely decried by moderate Remainers and other allies in the party as a petty decision based on her backing of Hunt. (A Team Johnson source retorted at the time that she was simply not rated a high-performing minister.)
But the fact that even ERG members are upset about the decision is significant. Within hours of Johnson arriving at Downing Street, his decisions were being questioned by the very people who should be delighted by his fresh No Deal cabinet. As subsequent interventions by Steve Baker and Mark Francois have shown, they are not to be bought by the fact that one of their own, Jacob Rees-Mogg, now occupies a seat at the Cabinet table. And they certainly aren’t enamoured of Dominic Cummings, who once described them as a “narcissist delusional subset”, “too busy shooting, skiing or chasing girls to do any work”.
As Johnson gambles on unifying the Leave vote behind him in an increasingly-inevitable general election, it is yet another example of how slippery the most ardent Leavers in his own party will be to pin down. While our attention is focused on the Hammonds and the Stewarts headed to the backbenches, it is worth noting that Johnson may have problems on more than one front.