Boris Johnson might not yet be prime minister, but the new Conservative leader has already made his first cabinet appointment: his Chief Whip. Mark Spencer, a senior member of the current Whips’ Office, has been given the nod ahead of bigger names tipped for what could well be the most important job in his administration.
Unlike Andrea Leadsom, Grant Shapps, Gavin Williamson and Iain Duncan Smith – former ministers who were all tipped by MPs at one time or another to take on the job of keeping Johnson’s fragile parliamentary coalition together – Spencer, MP for Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, has little public profile to speak of (which one admiring junior whip describes as “a testament to his discretion”). What’s more, having voted Remain in 2016 and been key in efforts to win Labour support for the withdrawal agreement, he is not a natural ally of the new Tory leader.
What Spencer is, however, is well-liked across a parliamentary party that had an almost completely broken relationship with its whips by the end of Theresa May’s tenure as leader. His appointment has been welcomed by everyone from Nicholas Soames, who backed Rory Stewart, to Brexit ultra Steve Baker, who tells me: “Mark is a very skilful and authoritative man, thoroughly respected across the party.”
That Johnson has plumped for an experienced whip whose reputation for collegiality and competence precedes him suggests he is approaching the difficult task of keeping his premiership on the road with a degree of seriousness. It will also reassure those Conservative MPs who backed Johnson, despite their misgivings about his personal abilities, that he at least possesses the sense to hire well.
Of course, Spencer will be unable to defy gravity, and his appointment alone won’t alter the parliamentary arithmetic that Johnson has inherited. But it does mean the new prime minister’s relationship with his parliamentary party – including those who did not vote for him – will start with a gesture of reconciliation. That was very much not the case with Theresa May.