Boris Johnson’s approach to assembling his first cabinet bore one similarity with how Theresa May put together hers in 2016: both unceremoniously dismissed those they deemed to be most tainted by association with the previous regime. But on Brexit, the defining mission of each government, Johnson has departed from a personnel strategy that was ultimately his predecessor’s undoing: attempting to strike a balance between Leavers and Remainers. Instead, Johnson has assembled a team that, with perhaps one or two exceptions at the very most, is completely reconciled to his embrace of a no-deal Brexit.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the very top jobs, and particularly at the Foreign Office – where Dominic Raab, his former leadership rival and the one-time Brexit secretary, replaces the sacked Jeremy Hunt. He has worked at the department before, albeit as one of its team of lawyers.
The fundamental reason why Raab takes up Johnson’s former post as foreign secretary, and not Amber Rudd, Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss or indeed Hunt, is his hard line on Brexit. He was the only serious contender to outflank Johnson on the question of no-deal during the leadership election – and in the process introduced a grateful Westminster to the concept of proroguing parliament.
So as far as the politics of his new role are concerned, Raab’s primary duty will be to spread and reinforce the message that Johnson is serious about his Brexit position in the chancelleries of Europe and beyond. In that respect, his appointment is an attempt to ensure that the identity of the Foreign Secretary has no bearing on the government’s defining policy, or how it is seen abroad, at all. That was very much not the case when Johnson served under May. (A cynic might also note that it limits his opportunities to schmooze MPs ahead of another leadership bid.)
Raab’s appointment as First Secretary of State – a role that will see him deputise for Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions – is clearly intended to serve an analogous purpose at Westminster. On the occasions where Remainer’s Remainer David Lidington stood in for May at PMQs, identifying points of divergence between his Brexit stance and the then prime minister’s was an easy and destabilising sport. But it is away from Brexit where Raab will face his toughest challenges, particularly on Iran. He will have to decide whether or not to depart from Jeremy Hunt’s response to the tanker crisis in the Gulf, which was to attempt to assemble a European taskforce to defend commercial shipping. Johnson may prefer to follow Donald Trump’s lead, a course Hunt fiercely resisted.
Then, of course, there is the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which Raab’s predecessor made his own. Johnson has always insisted that it is the Iranian government and not he that is responsible for her imprisonment, but Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family disagree. The politics of mediation will be tricky for Raab – and trickier still if he follows his Atlanticist instincts and rows in behind the Trump administration elsewhere in the Middle East (Raab, like Trump, is staunchly pro-Israel).
While acting as a salesman for Johnsonism in Europe might make the prime minister’s life easier when it comes to Brexit, it has the potential to complicate the foreign policy picture elsewhere. The FCO hierarchy and its staff, meanwhile, view Raab’s appointment with an air of trepidation – not least because of his reputation as a prickly, demanding and often pretentious taskmaster.