Sending Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office is bad for Britain, good for Theresa May

Britain's new Prime Minister is moving to ensure if Brexit goes wrong, the Brexiteers will share the blame

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Towards the end of his term in office, a despairing Bill Clinton complained to Tony Blair that the reason for George W. Bush’s political success was that “he criticised one thing on the right. He is making them think he is saving them from the right.”

That is part of what makes Theresa May Labour’s most dangerous opponent. Her attacks on her own party, the police and her efforts to increase the number of women and minority Conservative MPs, make her a trickier foe than any of the politicians she overcame to replace David Cameron.

But she also showed the other reason why the left should fear that she will be resident in Downing Street for a long time with her canny first moves to form her Cabinet. Her early backers in the Cabinet were rewarded – Philip Hammond, the biggest beast to endorse her bid for the leadership, moves from the Foreign Office to the Treasury, and Amber Rudd moves from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the Home Office – with the much-expected installation of Hammond to the Treasury no less significant for it being advertised in advance.

Just as with Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to overrule many of his own allies and put John McDonnell in as shadow chancellor, May will start with the all-important unity between Downing Street and the Treasury without which no government can prosper. (Blair and Brown were divided over who should lead the Labour party and the Euro, but united on almost everything else of substance.)

Crucially, on the issue that will dominate May’s government – the negotiation of Britain’s exit from the European Union – Hammond and her have been at one. While the Treasury is not an official player in Brexit talks, as Harold Wilson once quipped,  “whoever is in office, the Treasury is in power”, and that will remain the case.

But the really clever moves were around Brexit. The big difficulty for Britain is that there is a path to the country flourishing outside the European Union – it just involves breaking almost all of the promises made by Vote Leave. May risks being smashed up by the boosters of Brexit, who will, whatever happens, blame her for muffing up the negotiations – not them or their allies in the press for a mendacious campaign.

In as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is David Davis, an Outer of long and respected vintage in the Conservative party, and, having served as Europe minister for three years, has serious experience of the European Union. In at the newly-created Department for International Trade is Liam Fox, another Brexiteer, whose friendship May has cultivated over long years – the reward for which was his immediate endorsement following his exit from the Tory race and with it another signal that Tory supporters of a Leave vote could trust May to deliver Brexit.

Those two appointments are the beginning of the three-card trick with which May has rewarded and neutralised her most dangerous opponent, Boris Johnson. Johnson has been given the Foreign Office, notionally the grandest office – and certainly the grandest building – in the British government. But he has lost responsibility for negotiating the terms of British exit, trade is now the responsibility of Fox, and most Prime Ministers stray freely into the Foreign Office brief.

Johnson’s many eruptions and indiscretions over his long career as a columnist will be a cause for occasional embarrassment  for Downing Street. But it will keep him out of the country, unable to sustain a rebel following in the parliamentary party, and crucially, makes the Brexiteers responsible for the failures of Brexit.

On this evidence, Theresa May will be Prime Minister for as long as she wants.  

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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