Before Boris Johnson’s Cabinet purge, one supporter of Jeremy Hunt who was widely assumed to be safe was David Mundell, the Scotland Secretary.
Mundell – for seven years the only Conservative MP in Scotland – had been in the post since 2015 and, despite his opposition to no-deal and history of personal attacks on Johnson, was considered by most of his colleagues to be the only person in the Commons with sufficient experience to do the job. As the race to succeed Theresa May crawled towards its inevitable conclusion, Mundell appeared to make his peace with a Johnson premiership – and, crucially, did not rebel over no deal in the week before his election as Tory leader.
Yet even that very public change of heart could not spare Mundell the chop. He has instead been replaced with Alister Jack, one of the 12 Scottish Conservative MPs elected for the first time in 2017. It is a huge promotion for the former whip, a wealthy Lowland landowner who was the first of his intake to get a full ministerial post and is now its first Cabinet minister.
When it comes to his brief, Jack’s priorities will be no different from Mundell’s: his most important responsibility will be to manage relations with the Scottish Government and hold the government line against a second independence referendum. As legislation for a new plebiscite makes its way through the Scottish Parliament, Nicola Sturgeon – who scents opportunity for nationalism in a Johnson premiership – is taking an increasingly belligerent approach.
As the demands for a new vote get louder, the job of Scotland Secretary will not change. Though Jack’s Scottish colleagues are confident in his ability, others worry that now is no time for a neophyte, especially given the unpredictable electoral consequences Brexit could have in Scotland (one Scottish Tory MP joked on Johnson’s first night as prime minister that they hoped they SNP successor had as much fun in Parliament as they had).
Though Johnson began his term by appointing himself Minister for the Union – and eulogising the UK as the “awesome foursome” – it is Jack’s hiring that could prove just as consequential.