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21 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:18pm

Boris Johnson appoints his government – the NS Liveblog

By Patrick Maguire

Welcome to the New Statesman’s liveblog of Boris Johnson’s first and quite possibly last Cabinet reshuffle. Press refresh for updates.

23:18: That, by any reasonable standard, is your lot and indeed mine. Thanks for reading. The night in a sentence? Boris Johnson has used his overwhelming mandate from Conservative Party members to radically reshape his government as the journey to no-deal begins, in the process purging Theresa May’s allies, Jeremy Hunt’s, and Hunt himself. Here’s another: we’re almost certainly headed for an autumn election. Don’t have nightmares!

23:12: HOUSE! Oliver Dowden, the the Siobhan Fahey to Rishi Sunak’s Sara Dallin and Robert Jenrick’s Keren Woodward, is the new Cabinet Office Minister – responsible for keeping the show on the road. Having led much of Team Johnson’s work on preparing for government, he was unlikely to end up anywhere else. This, by the way, is the sort of role Team Hancock thought their man might end up with.

22:56: Also handed seats at the Cabinet table: James Cleverly, the Brexit minister and darling of Tory activists, who is appointed Conservative Party Chairman and Minister without Portfolio. With an election looming, managing the party’s campaigning wing will be just as significant a gig as any in Cabinet.

Brandon Lewis, meanwhile, returns from CCHQ to the Home Office, resuming his old post as Immigration Minister. And finally, Jo Johnson, who quit as Universities Minister in order to campaign for a second referendum last November, gets his old job back. That journey isn’t as unusual as it seems: he argued in his resignation statement that a no-deal Brexit, though painful, would not be an apocalyptic scenario and would in the long run be better for the UK than Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement.

22:48: Jacob Rees-Mogg and Esther McVey have emerged from No 10 (see 21:50) with a pair of not-quite-Cabinet jobs that will nonetheless entitle them to a seat at the top table. Rees-Mogg is the new Leader of the Commons, a reward for his early endorsement of, and quiet work organising for, Johnson’s campaign. The now former chairman of the European Research Group at least fancies himself as an expert in parliamentary procedure, and was also among the first Tories to seriously raise the prospect of proroging parliament to facilitate a no-deal Brexit, and his appointment is a reflection of Team Johnson’s determination to keep control of the order paper.

McVey, meanwhile, will attend Cabinet as Housing Minister – a new privilege for the role. Her Blue Collar Conservatism movement has advocated the building of more homes for shared ownership. Away from Brexit, McVey‘s beat will be one the government pushes hardest on.

22:13: Another third of the ambitious young trio who endorsed Johnson early (see 20:41) gets the promotion they – and the media – were promised. In a big but expected leap from his a junor post at Housing, Rishi Sunak is the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, which means both of the department’s Cabinet ministers are now BAME men. Significantly, he is a Brexiteer. Johnson is doing his best to cast his Treasury as the opposite of Philip Hammond’s.

22:01Geoffrey Cox, the star turn at Johnson’s leadership launch, keeps his job as Attorney General. Will he be quite as significant a figure in this administration as the last when it comes to Brexit? The hard line Johnson is taking on the backstop – and his complete opposition to time-limiting it or otherwise appending it with some sort of legal codicil or clarification – suggests not. Cox is the leading voice in the Johnson camp advocating a salvage job on the current Withdrawal Agreement by those means. It’s worth noting that that’s exactly what some in the ERG fear Dominic Cummings will do – but on the basis of Johnson’s current rhetoric, it is difficult to conclude that Cox hasn’t lost that particular fight.

21:50: Jacob-Rees Mogg and Esther McVey are in No 10just in case you needed a reminder of what sort of government Johnson is appointing. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in City Hall anymore.

21:43: Natalie Evans keeps her job as leader of the Lords. Some things are sacred to Johnson, after all.

21:37: Julian Smith, the man who despite his best efforts couldn’t keep Theresa May’s government together, gets to have a crack at attempting to reconstruct one in Northern Ireland. Or will he? Appointing a former Chief Whip to the job suggests Johnson’s eye is less on a reformed executive than it is the looming prospect of direct rule from Westminster – an inevitability in a no-deal scenario. The DUP, for what it’s worth, are pretty pleased with his appointment. “He certainly understands us, and the Northern Irish angle,” one of their MPs tells me.

21:34: Alister Jack, the first member of the 2017 intake to become a minister, becomes its first Cabinet minister as Scottish Secretary. His rapid promotion to a gig in the Whips’ Office left members of the 2015 intake very annoyed indeed earlier this year. Will Johnson live to regret sacking David Mundell? With Nicola Sturgeon already on the offensive, many Tories believe it is no time for a neophyte. If you want a glimpse of how Jack’s fellow Scottish Conservative MPs are feeling about all of this, one of them just texted me to say they hoped the next MP for their constituency had as nice a time as they’ve had. “It’s been a great two years.”

21:24: Alun Cairns stays in post as Welsh Secretary. Unlike ousted Scottish Secretary David Mundell – whose reconcilation with the inevitable came just a little bit too late – he kept his head down and supported Johnson from the off. 

21:16: At 20:41 I mentioned the year 2014. Here’s another throwback to those halcyon days: Grant Shapps! The man who was definitely decisive in crunching the numbers for Team Johnson on his, er, magic spreadsheet is rewarded for his efforts with the job of Transport Secretary. Maybe his command of Excel will help resolve all those timetabling issues.

Just who Johnson has promoted from those who backed him early has been particularly illuminating. I apologise for returning again to the sad story of James Brokenshire (18:15 – has it been that long?) but it’s an instructive parallel. Those who endorsed early but backed the Withdrawal Agreement are out on their ears, whereas those who opposed it aren’t. The lesson there is pretty obvious.

21:10: The Cabinet has its third BAME minister in Alok Sharma, who replaces Rory Stewart – remember him? – as International Development Secretary. Like Steve Barclay‘s retention as Brexit Secretary (19:04), this is another decision that is more interesting for its existence than the identity of the appointee. Johnson is a longstanding advocate of abolishing Dfid and folding its functions into those of the Foreign Office. That he hasn’t done so, despite Cummings’ appetite for bulldozing Whitehall and starting again, reflects the fact that nobody is really expecting this iteration of his administration to last long enough to do anything meaningful.

21:03: In March, Robert Buckland defied the government whip to abstain on an amendment ruling out no-deal. Now he’s just been promoted to Justice Secretary in Boris Johnson’s Cabinet. It’s journeys like his and Rudd’s that fill the prime minister’s team with optimism that, when push comes to shove, they will be able to squeak a no-deal through the Commons. Note, however, that the Cabinet’s bona fide wets are nowhere near roles that have anything to do with Brexit. 

20:48: Amber Rudd stays at the Department for Work and Pensions, and also inherits Penny Mordaunt’s Women and Equalities brief. She is the only supporter of Jeremy Hunt to survive the cull. That is all the proof you need that the price of admission for serving in the Johnson ministry is support for no-deal.

20:41: Remember the 2014 Newark by-election? It was a very much of its time scrap between David Cameron’s Conservatives and Ukip. Despite the hype, a young thruster called Robert Jenrick won it handily for the Tories. He gets a big promotion from his current gig as Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury to Housing Secretary, replacing James Brokenshire. Jenrick was among three ambitious young Osbornite and Cameroon Tories to offer a surprising joint endorsement to Johnson early in the Cabinet – at that point, it was obviously over. The others, Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden, are likely to get big jobs too.

20:34: The march of the women we were promised continues: Andrea Leadsom gets the unreformed Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy brief – quite the promotion given her meagre showing in the first ballot of MPs – while Nicky Morgan, a Remain rebel who now occupies Malthouse Compromise territory, is the new Culture Secretary. We’re now at five women Cabinet ministers – equal to the number in Theresa May’s last Cabinet. 

Amber Rudd is at No10, so Johnson’s first ministry will definitely exceed that number – though expect Labour and the Liberal Democrats to make short work of the fact that, despite those briefings, the new Foreign Secretary is the bloke who once called feminists obnoxious bigots.

20:28: Gavin Williamson returns to government as Education Secretary just 85 days after getting the boot for definitely not leaking details of the Government’s 5G deal with Huawei to the Telegraph. Note that he didn’t get Defence or Northern Ireland, two jobs he had been tipped for and was understood to covet. That Johnson hasn’t given him a security-adjacent brief could be a sign that Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary who led the inquiry that led to his sacking, is staying put.

20:16: That westerly breeze you can feel is the people of Northern Ireland breathing a sigh of relief: Theresa Villiers returns to cabinet, but won’t be heading back to Stormont. Instead she replaces Michael Gove as Environment Secretary. For evidence of how serious Johnson is about pursuing a no-deal Brexit come what may – as if any more were needed, look at the sort of appointment he makes in the departments that will be intimately involved with its delivery. 

Matt Hancock had made much of his diligent preparation ahead of 29 March; and in Villiers Defra gets a committed believer in a WTO Brexit. Whether that is the same as hiring well ahead of a likely no-deal is another question. As, I suppose, is whether you can really prepare British agriculture for, and insulate it from, a no-deal Brexit at all. Guto Bebb and many other Tory Remainers don’t think so, in any case.

20:09: Some consolation for Matt Hancock: the government’s new Brexit policy means he’ll finally get some use out of all those fridges he bought.

19:56: Another would-be Chancellor goes home disappointed: Matt Hancock will remain Health Secretary. Having ditched his own leadership bid to endorse Johnson, Hancock had harboured ambitions of going to the Treasury or to the sort of backroom role that Michael Gove has instead been given. Johnson’s treatment of those who prostrated to him in the early stages of the campaign has been quite something – see also his swift dismissal of James Brokenshire (18:15). It’s another sign that Dominic Cummings will be the man really running the show.

19:39Will Cooling, one of the most consistently insightful tweeters to pop up in the mentions of the NS politics team, tweets with a question that surprisingly isn’t an inquiry about how to obtain EU citizenship: what do I make of the age gap between the holders of the four great offices of state and their Labour shadows, all of whom are at least 10 years older than their opposite numbers. My instinctive response is that even those optics won’t induce the proper reshuffle Team Corbyn have avoided since they shuffled a few deckchairs in June 2017.

19:30: Replacing Liam Fox at International Trade: Liz Truss. Having long been touted for Chancellor, it is not quite the dramatic promotion many had expected. But a promotion it is.

19:22: Ben Wallace, the Security Minister, gets a promotion to Defence Secretary – the job he has coveted for a very long time. This one is a particularly significant appointment, as Wallace is the first of Johnson’s close personal allies to be given a Cabinet job this evening. Any others who make it to the top table will occupy much more junior roles. Will that backfire? Maybe. But for now, the entire inner Cabinet is singing from the same hymn sheet on Brexit, which is all that really matters.

19:21: Downing Street sources have helpfully clarified that Raab is de facto deputy prime minister. Presumably that makes Gove de facto deputy to the de facto deputy prime minister. 

19:13: All is forgiven: Michael Gove will serve as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the administrative role just vacated by David Lidington: Gove will be responsible for leading no-deal preparations across Whitehall. It’s another sign that Johnson is essentially building the Continuity Vote Leave administration he and Gove briefly planned to build together in 2016, with the latter reunited with Cummings in the No 10 backroom. It’s unclear what Raab’s fancy second title means for Gove’s claim to the de facto deputy prime minister honorific. There’s been some talk of the Deputy Prime Ministership being revived in of itself as a sort of chief policy officer role, with Matt Hancock among the names in the frame. We’ll see.

19:08: There was a lot of concern among some of the older and more doctrinaire members of the European Research Group that the appointment of Dominic Cummings as Johnson’s senior adviser in Downing Street meant the new regime would devote itself to presenting a mildly tweaked iteration of the Withdrawal Agreement for a fourth meaningful vote. These appointments do not exactly suggest their fears were well-founded.

19:04: Stephen Barclay keeps his job as Brexit Secretary, which is less interesting for the fact of his survival – earlier this month, he told Michel Barnier that the Withdrawal Agreement was dead – than that of his department, which regains responsibility for EU negotiations from the Cabinet Office but loses no-deal planning.

19:01: The appointments of Raab and Patel to such senior positions rather calls into question the judgement of those One Nation Tories who thought they were getting the Johnson who won the London Mayoralty twice. And those who thought the election of Simon Hoare as chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee was a surefire sign that he’d be easily tamed in office. 

18:54Dominic Raab is the new Foreign Secretary and First Secretary of State. Some Conservative MPs are particularly dismayed at this appointment, which is another that opposition parties will waste no time in making hay out of. Much like Javid’s, this appointment underlines Johnson’s commitment to his Brexit position: there is no way, given what we now know about the path he intends to take, that he could have kept Hunt in post. Instead, he will be to Johnson what Johnson never was to Theresa May – a Foreign Secretary completely in tune with their Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit. 

18:45Priti Patel replaces Javid at the Home Office. That sound you can hear? Champagne corks popping in Lib Dem HQ. Given the shift in the centre of gravity within government over Brexit that Johnson is clearly trying to effect, she is unlikely to be the last of the self-styled Spartans – the 28 Tory MPs who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement three times – to get a top job. 

18:42: What might Javid do at the Treasury? Two clues from his campaign: he called for an emergency budget ahead of a no-deal Brexit, something Johnson explicitly mentioned in his speech this afternoon, and made a more articulate case for the frontrunner’s tax cuts than he did. It is a clear sign that compromise on Brexit ain’t coming – and as such indicates that an early election will be.

18:36: Sajid Javid has been confirmed as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, and becomes the first BAME politician to occupy the post. Finishing fourth in the leadership election is the best thing that ever happened to him.

18:31: One-time Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright has also confirmed that he was sacked. A nation mourns. 

18:27: Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has just told Irish TV that the renegotiation Boris Johnson promised in his inaugural speech is “not going to happen”. Oddly, you can read that as an endorsement of the decidedly aggressive approach the Prime Minister is taking this evening: he is now all but certain to default to a no-deal position very quickly indeed, and will need a Cabinet of true believers.

18:23: It’s not just Hunt supporters getting the boot – Mel Stride, who ran Michael Gove’s leadership campaign, has been sacked as Leader of the Commons and will return to the backbenches.

18:19: 16 – that’s sixteen – of Theresa May’s Cabinet have left the government this afternoon, with 10 of them sacked. Not only did Boris Johnson finish the leadership contest with a coalition of supporters that was about as unsustainably broad as Theresa May’s was in 2016, but he seems to have taken lessons in party management from her too. 

18:15: What does Boris Johnson’s Cabinet purge mean? 

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 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. 

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. 

18:12: Hello and welcome to this evening’s NS liveblog. We’ll be bringing you news and analysis of every appointment Boris Johnson makes to his first Cabinet. A brutal purge of Theresa May’s government has just concluded, with Jeremy Hunt and almost all of his Cabinet supporters unceremoniously dismissed from government. 

Hunt has been dismissed as Foreign Secretary after refusing to accept a demotion to Defence, while Penny Mordaunt, the Defence Secretary, was also sacked in Johnson’s first act in office.

Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, 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 have also been dismissed. 

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