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Boris Johnson's gamble

Dominated by libertarian Thatcherites and privileged reactionaries, Boris Johnson’s cabinet will repel social liberals. But could it win an election?

In 2016 a senior civil servant of my acquaintance, approaching a significant birthday, began to feel as if they were lacking in purpose or direction. They started seeing a therapist and, after six productive sessions, realised to their delight that their existential funk was not down to the advancement of years or dissatisfaction with their relationship, but simply that, for the first time in their long career, they had neither direction nor support from Downing Street. Their sense of decay and drift wasn’t personal, but professional.

A few days after Boris Johnson had sacked 11 cabinet ministers (six more resigned) and radically reshaped the government, I asked the same official how they found their new masters. Civil servants, like most British graduates, largely voted to stay in the European Union, and my acquaintance is no exception. But their first reaction to the new government was delight: that after years of drift, they once again had a strong sense of what their bosses wanted.

Most special advisers who survived the cabinet purge feel the same way, although that is tempered by a fear that they will incur the displeasure of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s new special adviser, who has ultimate approval over whom cabinet ministers hire. This role was once occupied by David Cameron’s communications director, Andy Coulson, who vetoed Cummings’s appointment as Michael Gove’s aide on the grounds that he would destabilise the government.

It’s not only among Conservatives and in Whitehall that the new government has boosted the spirits of those working at Westminster. If you had asked Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle or Jo Swinson’s closest allies to pick a new Conservative government, this is the one they would have assembled. For Swinson, that the new cabinet has visibly and ostentatiously signalled that it is a government of and for Brexiteers makes her mission of assembling a coalition of Remainers and anti-Conservative voters to unseat the Tories across the south of England much easier. For Team Corbyn, that the new government is explicitly and visibly to the right of the May administration makes it easier to reverse the slippage of Labour votes to the Liberal Democrats and Greens. One influential Corbynite sums up Labour’s thinking like this: “We do badly in shades of grey – when we can make it a black and white choice, we can win.”

It’s certainly true that this a cabinet well-stocked with libertarians: Boris Johnson sees more Thatcherites when he looks at his cabinet than Margaret Thatcher did with any of hers. And that’s before you count the occupants of the extra table that has been wheeled into the cabinet room to accommodate the ever-larger ranks of junior ministers who are now listed as “attending cabinet” – an arrangement that one minister jokingly compared to the extra table called into service at their children’s birthday parties.

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In terms of Thatcher’s legacy, the government’s divisions are largely to do with approach: the likes of Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, are, as one cabinet minister put it, “old school Thatcherites who think that you have to do this stuff by stealth”, while Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, and Sajid Javid, the Chancellor, believe that the best way forward is to make an explicit argument for right-wing principles.

Despite the influence of Cummings and the presence in the Cabinet Office of Michael Gove, tasked with preparing for a no-deal Brexit, it’s more accurate to see this as a government dominated by libertarians than one dominated by Vote Leave. Crucial departments, such as International Trade (occupied by the outspoken Liz Truss) and most importantly Javid’s Treasury, are led by ministers who campaigned to Remain but who did so because they feared the process of Brexit would distract from rather than accelerate the business of freeing up British markets and moving to the right. The change of approach from the government is perhaps best illustrated at the Department for Education, where Gavin Williamson, replacing the moderate Damian Hinds, brought a ceremonial sword with him from the Ministry of Defence to his new offices.

With the exceptions of Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, and Nicky Morgan, the Culture Secretary, the cabinet has a more coherent outlook on Brexit than its members’ stances in the 2016 referendum would suggest. Jo Johnson was explicit in his resignation letter in November 2018 that he believed that either a no-deal Brexit or no deal at all were more satisfactory ways to maximise British sovereignty than Theresa May’s agreement. Grant Shapps, the new Transport Secretary, told allies that he was voting against May’s deal because it was “better to be all in or all out” of the EU.

So the picture painted of this government by Labour and the Liberal Democrats is true. We now have a government dominated by economic liberals, committed to the hardest of exits from the European Union. It has abandoned not just the political position of David Cameron’s leadership but the political style as well. Cameron fretted so much about focus groups showing that the Conservatives were seen as the party solely for the richest that he banned champagne from Conservative Party conference and embarked on a series of initiatives to woo social liberals. By contrast, Boris Johnson has invited Jacob Rees-Mogg, who adores the pageantry and ceremonialism of the British upper classes, into the cabinet and has given the title of home secretary to Priti Patel, who has publicly supported the death penalty and been a vocal critic of the foreign aid budget.

But will the change of both programme and political approach have the effect that Corbyn and Swinson both hope it will?

While this is not strictly speaking a Vote Leave government, its best hope of winning an election – which, to keep its promises on tax and spending, let alone on Brexit, it will have to do sooner rather than later – is to re-create the coalition that powered Vote Leave to victory in 2016. That means making inroads into Labour territory in Wales, the West Midlands and the north of England to compensate for what it will lose to Labour in the big cities, to the Liberal Democrats in Wales and the south of England, and to the SNP in Scotland. It is, in other words, the same approach that failed to deliver a Conservative majority in the 2017 general election. Johnson’s government has more ethnic minorities in the cabinet than any other government in British history. If they can help secure the votes of British ethnic minority Leavers – more of whom backed Brexit than have ever backed a party of the right – they can easily cope with the loss of white liberal voters to the Liberal Democrats and Labour.

But the risk that Johnson is taking is that at the last election, while the Tories were surprised by Corbyn’s good campaign, they were saved by the Liberal Democrat campaign, which was holed below the waterline by questions about Tim Farron’s reactionary attitudes to homosexuality. A stronger Liberal Democrat campaign could mean that the same approach as 2017 yields a still worse result for the Tories next time.

The Conservatives’ hope, however, is that a split Remain vote – and a Brexit Party that is at least partially neutralised – will allow them to pull off a victory thanks to the vagaries of our electoral system.

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The blunt truth is that this hope must one way or the other be dashed, if there is to be any path to victory for a Corbyn-led Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats. If, aided by first-past-the-post and a Conservative Party that has repelled left-wing and liberal voters, Labour still cannot muster a big enough share in the right places to enter Downing Street at the next election, it is difficult to see the circumstances, short of full-blown economic catastrophe, in which it ever would. Equally, if the Liberal Democrats cannot make a breakthrough when Labour is led from its left flank and the Conservatives are dominated by libertarianism, when will they? As for the Tories, the next election may well prove that David Cameron’s thesis – or indeed, the stealthy Thatcherism favoured by some around the cabinet – holds true, and that an unapologetically posh, emphatically right-wing Conservative Party cannot win a majority in 21st-century Britain.

Either way, the new cabinet is not just right wing: it is a political experiment that will either discredit itself, at least one of its opponents, or the party leaders that came before it.

If Vote Leave exposed a new fault-line in British politics, this new government, staffed with former Vote Leave officials and whose ministers were the stars of Vote Leave’s campaign in 2016, may soon be about to discover the boundaries of Britain’s new politics, whether in electoral triumph or disaster.

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.

This article appears in the 02 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special