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24 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:18pm

Boris Johnson purges his Cabinet of Hunt supporters

By Patrick Maguire

Is Team Johnson’s pledge to increase the number of women with Cabinet posts dead in the water? Penny Mordaunt, the first female Defence Secretary, has been sacked from her post in the new prime minister’s first act in office.

The decision has taken much of Westminster by surprise and at first glance seems odd, not least in the wake of what the incoming administration briefed overnight about increasing diversity in its first Cabinet. 

Mordaunt supported Jeremy Hunt over Johnson but, as a Brexiteer – and alumna of Vote Leave – was one of the few plausible candidates for promotion from the women currently at the top table. She had also made clear she was willing to serve the frontrunner despite her endorsement. 

So why the sacking? In one respect it is a testament to the sheer number of moving parts – and competing interests – Johnson must contend with in his first reshuffle. Given his broad coalition of supporters, the reality is that he does not have enough patronage to dispense. The swift dismissal of Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, the Housing Secretary and one of Johnson’s earliest supporters, reflects just how tricky the politics are. Of the series of difficult calls he will have to make this evening, sacking supporters of Hunt is the easiest. 

That political reality also explains the unceremonious dismissal of Liam Fox, another Hunt supporter and Brexiteer, as International Trade Secretary, as well as the departures of Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, David Mundell, the Scotland Secretary, and Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes.

But it is also a sign of how the political centre of gravity will shift within the Conservative Party once Johnson’s government gets moving in earnest – namely away from deal-inclined ministers like Fox and Hunt, and towards longtime opponents of the withdrawal agreement. 

Above anything else, their departures reveal just how Johnson has interpreted his overwhelming mandate from Conservative members. It is clear that, despite promising Jeremy Hunt that he would “love bomb” those who did not vote for him, the prime minister is setting out to radically reshape his government. The biggest test of his commitment to that mission will be whether the Foreign Secretary stays in post as he has demanded – or goes the same way as his supporters.

It is a strategy that poses as many risks as opportunities to Johnson: Theresa May, who embarked on a similarly aggressive purge of the Cameroons in 2016, learned to her cost that dispensing with ministers from the ancien regime so brutally harmed her authority in the longer term. Doing so while trying to push a divisive Brexit policy through a minority parliament could harm her successor further still. But Johnson has clearly calculated that to do so, he will need a Cabinet of true believers in no-deal. 

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