As much as he is routinely described as complacent and known for avoiding conflict, Boris Johnson has fired 27 members of his cabinet in his two years as prime minister. His three restructurings have been brutal and he has rejected any attempt at dissent.
Government sources explain that the casualties were intended to send cabinet members a message about Johnson’s strength. Robert Buckland, the Minister of Justice, lost his post despite apparently doing nothing wrong. Gavin Williamson, the Education Minister, was unceremoniously fired, despite fears that holding him out could be a risk. An official source says that all government ministers “should know that they are not essential.”
One conservative compares the restructuring to Margaret Thatcher’s “purge” in 1981 – a brutal display of her authority after 18 months of rebellions and U-turns. “Boris has shown the people that he is in command,” says this source. “He won’t waste time anymore. Anyone can be fired.”
A senior official explains that the main reasons for the changes are the characteristics that Johnson appreciated the most: loyalty and responsiveness. “That is what the promotions are trying to show. It is shown by the appointments of new Culture Minister Nadine Dorries, who is incredibly loyal, and new Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi, with his incredible responsiveness.”
Short stem poppies
But a former Conservative minister describes Johnson’s new team as “a cabinet of short-stemmed poppies,” a British expression referring to a tendency to distrust the brightest (long-stemmed flowers). Thus, to Johnson, according to this minister, who does not like to be surrounded by potential rivals who can overshadow him. “Who are the great leaders?” The prime minister, according to this source, could have recovered heavyweights, such as Jeremy Hunt.
Deputies tories occupying seats contested by Labor are also wondering what message the restructuring will convey to their voters. Although a source in the prime minister’s office has promised that there would be a “focus on uniting and bringing the whole country to the same level,” there is little geographical diversity in the new cabinet. “Show me a single cabinet member who understands my voters,” complains a tory from North.
Late Wednesday night, Johnson responded to that question by promoting one of the members of Parliament from the disputed sites, Simon Clarke, representative of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, to Secretary of State for the Treasury – perhaps as a sign for the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on his spending priorities going forward.
Dominic Raab’s victory
The layoffs were intended to happen quickly after questions to the prime minister in parliament. But no matter how many times they relocate the post-its to the white board in the Downing Street office, there is always a cabinet member who can kick the board and make the unexpected happen.
In the Prime Minister’s office in Parliament, hidden behind the chair of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Dominic Raab strongly opposed being moved from the Foreign Office to the Ministry of Justice, despite being widely criticized for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.
During a tense negotiation, Raab landed the position of deputy prime minister, a position that did not exist in Johnson’s cabinet, although Raab was often described as his de facto deputy minister, and which could give him more opportunities to participate in vital strategy meetings.
A source close to Raab has described this charge as a victory, stating that “it is the Rayner of restructuring”, comparing it to Keir Starmer’s failed displacement of his delegate Angela Rayner, where she came out with a more powerful position. Another Raab ally has dismissed that comparison. “It took Angela Rayner all day – Dom did it in 45 minutes.”
However, it is difficult to argue that the posting to Minister of Justice is a demotion. Raab left Parliament on Wednesday afternoon with a future still uncertain before negotiations moved to the prime minister’s office in Downing Street. When he addressed the Ministry of Justice in Victoria, his team left to retrieve the pieces of a trip to the United States planned for next week, in which Raab would no longer participate.
Although his departure had already been widely reported, sources close to Raab believed that he could survive articles about his absence during the withdrawal from Afghanistan due to being on vacation.
“He has been treated terribly,” said a member of Parliament close to Raab, recalling how the now deputy prime minister was left in command last year when Johnson was hospitalized in intensive care for COVID-19. “It is the man who stepped forward when the prime minister was dying, he managed the country and never used it to polish his own image. He has been loyal ad nauseam, it is outrageous. ”
Buckland – Raab’s predecessor as justice minister – has received the most support among those laid off. “What have you done wrong in the last two years? Nothing, ”says a source. Another says: “He was very competent and popular and we will miss him.”
In contrast, few members of Parliament had sympathy for Gavin Williamson, who is said to have delivered a farewell speech to his team on Wednesday, as he was sure his fate was sealed. Some sources say that he would have asked for the posts of bloc chief or leader of Parliament in recent months. Johnson did not consider it necessary.
“Gav was always seen as a great organizer of Members of Parliament, but I think his brilliance has been too dimmed to be a real threat,” says a former minister. Another minister says Williamson’s withdrawal comes “two years late.”
The appointment of Liz Truss to the Foreign Office makes many of the party’s loyalists happy – some members of Parliament wondered aloud if Johnson would really promote a more popular cabinet member than himself. But it has shocked tories They see in it another sign that the UK’s foreign policy ambitions are waning.
“Is there surely a limit to how high Truss can be promoted?” Complains a member of Parliament. Another says: “Our wing of the party has suffered quite a few humiliations in recent years, but every time you wonder how much worse things can get, you meet Liz Truss in the Foreign Office and Nadine Dorries also in the cabinet.”
In addition to Priti Patel, who remains in her post as interior minister, there is another big winner in the restructuring: Sunak.
Cabinet members have just submitted their budget proposals. So the new members of the cabinet will be tied to the plans of their predecessors and unable to make significant changes of course. When they begin to deal with their new duties, many decisions will not be in their hands. “It is the first rule of the government: the Treasury always wins,” jokes a senior official.
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies