For the first time in a long while, the expected has happened. Boris Johnson won the second stage of the Conservative leadership race, beating Jeremy Hunt by a rate of 2:1.
The moment Boris accepts HM The Queen’s commission to form a government, his first task will be to handwrite for Letters of Last Resort to each of the Royal Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines before a security briefing on Iran. Possibly more interestingly, Boris will also need to fill his Cabinet. As well as filling this week’s resignations, including the expected resignations of the Chancellor, Justice Secretary, and International Development Secretary. This re-shuffle will tell us a lot about what to expect from a Johnson ministry. This is the opportunity for him to reward loyal sergeants and competent ministers, curry favour from various factions, and assert political authority over the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Insiders have also suggested that Johnson will use the opportunity to build a Cabinet that ‘truly reflect[s] modern Britain’, a subtle nod towards increasing female and BAME representation.
What we can expect from the incoming Johnson ministry is a change of approach. Both Theresa May and David Cameron were focussed on detail and took a hands-on approach. Johnson, however, is different. If his time as London Mayor is any indicator, he will take a less-involved role in Cabinet. It has been suggested that he saw his Mayoralty as being akin to a CEO, where he sets the overall policy direction and delegates responsibility for detailed policy. This approach in No 10 will be an interesting one for multiple reasons. Firstly, it will allow Cabinet members and junior ministers to shine. As the Conservative Party is on the cusp of a generation change, this approach will allow ministers to set out their stalls and lay the foundations for future leadership and senior Cabinet post bids. Secondly, it will re-emphasise Primus inter Pares – first amongst equals. Strictly speaking, the Prime Minister is the head of Cabinet and not holding a position de jure superior to the others. Ultimately, this gives ministers more breadth in how to execute their briefs while allowing the Prime Minister to focus on other aspects of government, such as working with their European counterparts on solving the Brexit impasse.
Rumours have been flying about what to expect. The second-most important role in Government, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is said to have three front-runners: Sajid Javid – the front-runner, Liz Truss, and Matt Hancock. However, anything could happen, especially with Johnson’s commitment to increasing female representation in Cabinet. Katy Balls has suggested that two women are in line for Great Offices of State. This could pave the way for an outsider like Amber Rudd to take up residence at No 11. What Johnson will be keeping in mind is the importance of this pick. The relationship between No 10 and No 11 needs to be rock solid. When there is discord between the two, instability follows close behind. He cannot afford to have a Hammond-esque figure undermining him from the Treasury.
The other two Great Offices of State – the Home and Foreign Secretaries – are also of high importance. The Home Office has wide-ranging responsibilities and is considered by many to be a dysfunctional department. Windrush can attest to this. It will also come under pressure with Johnson’s pledge to invest in another 20,000 police officers and the ever-present knife crime issue in London. This would lend itself to a reforming figure unafraid to ruffle feathers like Michael Gove. However, has Boris thrown the hatchet away and is he prepared to end the Bo-Go psychodrama? Amber Rudd’s recent u-turn on a no-deal exit also paves the way for her return to Cabinet. Her in the Home Office would curry favour with her one-nation Tory caucus as well as showing his one-nation credentials. She also faces competition from Priti Patel to take over the Home Office, who is also tipped to return to the Cabinet.
The Foreign Secretary will be a less straight-forward appointment. It’s rumoured that Johnson offered Jeremy Hunt the Defence Ministry, however he is said to have refused the notional demotion. Keeping Hunt in-post is also advantageous given the ongoing Iranian crisis and would signal a more unity approach to government. However, there are also advantages to a Brexiteer Foreign Secretary, such as Penny Mordaunt, to support Johnson in his Brexit policy.
Another positions to keep an eye on is who replaces brandon Lewis as Party Chairman. Given the Parliamentary arithmetic, the likelihood of a general election increases yet further. This would necessitate a natural campaigner that can project a positive image of the Tory Party to counter the ‘old, pale, and stale’ perception of the Party. Some suggest James Cleverley is a shoe-in for this position.
It’s very easy to get lost in the speculation – just look at Tory Twitter! In the wake of his leadership victory, two important appointments have slid under the radar. Firstly, he appointed Mark Spencer as his Chief Whip. Spencer voted remain in the referendum, however, he is respected on both sides of the divide with Sir Nicholas Soams and Steve Baker welcoming the appointment. Secondly, he appointed David Frost as Olly Robbins’ replacement as EU sherpa. Frost was Boris’ former special advisor on Europe while he was Foreign Secretary and has worked in the UK’s representation in the EU. This has been welcomed by EU and Brexit wonks as a pragmatic appointment. Frost is in a ‘deal space’, where he thinks alternative arrangements can work and isn’t prone to tearing up the Withdrawal Agreement and following GAT 24 unicorns to Narnia. This signals a victory for the Cox types in the Boris camp who are aiming for a revised Withdrawal Agreement.
The first indications of which way Boris Johnson is heading and how his Ministry will look will come after he accepts the Queen’s commission to form a government. The full Cabinet lineup will be known around Thursday when they are sworn in at the Privy Council meeting on Thursday. I, for one, will be watching every moment from Australia with wide, tired eyes.