The Remainers are leaving and the Leavers are remaining. After giving his speech on the steps of No 10, Mr Johnson wasted no time in appointing his Cabinet. In an indication of the sense of purpose at the heart of Johnson’s government, the full Cabinet was appointed within the day. It was the most comprehensive reshuffle since Harold Macmillan’s 1962 Night of the Long Knives. The result of Mr Johnson’s Night of the Blond Knives is as follows:
Chancellor of the Exchequer: Sajid Javid
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: Michael Gove
Home Secretary: Priti Patel
Foreign Secretary: Dominic Raab
Brexit Secretary: Stephen Barclay
Defence Secretary: Ben Wallace
International Trade Secretary: Liz Truss
Health Secretary: Matt Hancock
Environment Secretary: Theresa Villiers
Education Secretary: Gavin Williamson
DCMS Secretary: Nicky Morgan
Business Secretary: Andrea Leadsome
Housing Secretary: Robert Jenrick
Works and Pensions Secretary: Amber Rudd
Lord Chancellor: Robert Buckland
International Development Secretary: Alok Sharma
Transport Secretary: Grant Shapps
Wales Secretary: Alun Cairns
Northern Ireland Secretary: Julian Smith
Scottish Secretary: Alistair Jack
Leader of the House of Lords: Baroness Evans
Attorney-General: Geoffrey Cox
Ministers of State attending Cabinet are now as follows:
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Rushi Sunak
Conservative Party Chairman: James Cleverley
Minister of State for Housing: Esther McVey
Leader of the Commons: Jacob Rees-Mogg
Minister of State for the Home Office: Brandin Lewis
Minister of State for BEIS: Jo Johnson
Minister of State for the Cabinet Office: Oliver Dowden
Minister of State for BEIS: Kwasi Kwarteng
There are a few things to note. The Great Offices of State – PM, Chancellor, Home, and Foreign Secretaries – have a record representation BAME holders with Javid as Chancellor and Patel as Home Secretary. This continues across the entire Cabinet with a total of 6 BAME ministers – Javid, Patel, Sharma, Sunak, Cleverley, and Kwateng.
What is also noteworthy is the vim and vigour of the transition reshuffle. According to the Institute for Government, this is the most comprehensive intra-term reshuffle in the last 25 years. A total of 18 ministers having left the Cabinet, while only 6 have remained in post. A marked increase on the 13 who left Cabinet when May took over from Cameron and more than double the 7 that left during the 1962 Night of the Long Knives. The risks for Mr Johnson cannot be understated. With a working majority of 1 after the expected by-election loss of the 1st of August, losing competent Ministers who may bare a grudge is an issue he could have used without. As the saying goes, “it’s better to be inside [the Cabinet] pissing out than outside pissing in”. However, on of Brexit, as indicated on Boris’s New Government: as it happens (Coffee House Shots 25th July 2019), those Ministers who have been sacked are unlikely to vote against a deal if and when it returns to the Commons.
Johnson’s Cabinet appointments are a good indication of how he intends to approach Brexit in the lead up to Halloween. Contrary to some expectations and fears, his Cabinet is not avowedly no-deal. Of the appointments, two, Priti Patel and Theresa Villiers, have voted against Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement thrice. Four, (excluding Johnson), Mogg, McVey, Raab, and Shapps, voted against the Withdrawal Agreement twice. The remainder of the Cabinet have all voted for the Withdrawal Agreement trice. While the reshuffle does represent a hardening of the Cabinet’s Brexit stance, it does not indicate a full-throated push for no-deal from the outset. There is no David Davis, Paterson, Baker, or IDS. Harder Brexiteers are also counterbalanced by the sofer positions of Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, and Jo Johnson, who The latter resigned Cabinet to advocate for a second referendum. To a lesser extent, they are also counterbalanced by the Parliamentary arithmetic and shenanigans of the Speaker and Dominic Grieve. Johnson, who has coveted No 10 since his time at Eaton, will be hesitant about launching fully into no-deal as it would endanger his time in No 10. This suggests that at Cabinet and No 10, the government will be aiming for an altered deal from the EU – the so-called lipstick on pig approach.
The Cabinet’s approach is significantly bolstered by two important appointments to No 10 – Dominic Cummings and David Frost. As I wrote previously, David Frost is in a ‘deal space’ that believes alternative arrangements can work and that a GATT 24 arrangement is unworkable and not possible. He is also familiar with Brussels having worked there in the 1990s and was Johnson’s special advisor on Europe while he was Foreign Secretary.
David Frost is joined by Dominic Cummings. Cummings is an important appointment that puts to bed an essential question about Johnson’s premiership. Because of his leadership style, broad nature of his Parliamentary support base, and now fairly broad Cabinet (from Patel to Jo Johnson), a watertight operator in No 10 is needed. Cummings is just that operator. On Home Cummings (Brexitcast 25th July), Henry Newman describes him as ‘a pragmatist, very analytical, very careful before he makes a decision’ who ‘assembles a good team around him, and then decides what he’s going to do, and is very determined in getting that done’. He is able to assist the assist Johnson in setting the strategic direction, which he quotes will be welcomed by Civil Servants. Their Brexiteer credentials cannot be questioned, either. Cummings, after all, was one of the pivotal minds behind Vote Leave. His appointment also counters the suggestion that Johnson’s premiership will represent a shift to an ERG position on Brexit. Cummings was very critical of ERG figures during and after the referendum, having described some of them as ‘narcissist-delusional’, ‘thick as mince’, lazy, ‘useful idiots for Remain’, and that they “should be treated like a metastasising tumour and excised from the UK body politic”. Crucially, he argued that MPs should back the deal as it could be fixed later by saying “a serious government — one not cowed by officials and their bullshit ‘legal advice’… will dispense with these commitments and any domestic law enforcing them.”
Cummings’ appointment is a victory for the Cox faction of Boris’ supporters who have been arguing in favour of a revised deal. It will also send a positive sign to Johnson’s EU interlocutors, who have been unsure about which Boris to expect. It also makes EU engagement somewhat more likely. While the EU has been adamant the Withdrawal Agreement is not up for renegotiation, there are cues that point towards a willingness to further discussions. Michel Barnier in his congratulatory tweet to Boris Johnson says he is looking forward to ‘working constructively’ with him to ‘facilitate the ratification’ of the Withdrawal agreement. What Johnson referred to as a new deal during the leadership campaign my be an altered version of Mrs May’s deal. Henry Newman also indicated that some within the EU Commission have been discussing allowing ‘surgical changes’ to the WA to find a way to circumvent the Backstop. Katya Adler in the same episode of Brexitcast also highlighted that within quite a few member-states there is an ‘openness’ to the idea of a time-limit or sunset clause to the Backstop if the Irish agree. Such a change may satisfy both sides, allowing Barnier to claim it’s the same deal while Johnson a new deal. As Henry Newman also highlighted, if the Backstop can be resolved, most opposition to the deal should ‘fall away’.
The direction of Johnson’s cabinet is indicated by a combination of three factors: The breadth of Cabinet, appointment of Dominic Cummings and David Frost, and positive signals coming from the EU. These indicate that Johnson’s government will be aiming for an amended deal over no-deal, with an orderly exit more likely than not from my perspective.
You could say that last nights reshuffle is Leave taking back control … of the Cabinet.