For a man who is often said to please people and avoid conflict, in his two years as prime minister, Boris Johnson has fired 27 cabinet ministers. His three renovations so far have been brutal, rejecting any attempt at a broad church.
Whitehall sources said the casualties were intended to alert his ministers to the strength of the prime minister’s position. Robert Buckland, the attorney general, lost his job despite not committing any detectable crime. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, was unceremoniously fired despite fears that he could be a threat to the back benches. A government source said all ministers “would know they are expendable.”
One Tory compared the shakeup to Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 “snot purge,” a brutal display of authority after 18 months of rebellions and U-turns. “Boris has shown people that he is in charge,” they said. “People are not going to waste time now. Anyone can be cut. “
A senior assistant said the main motivator for the changes were the qualities Johnson valued the most: loyalty and dedication. “That is what the promotions intend to show, which is summarized in [the new culture secretary] Nadine Dorries, incredibly loyal and in [the new education secretary] Nadhim Zahawi, amazing delivery. “
But a former Conservative cabinet minister called Johnson’s new top team “a cabinet of short poppies,” saying he doesn’t like being surrounded by potential rivals. “Who are the great beasts?” they asked, claiming that the prime minister could have brought back heavyweights like Jeremy Hunt.
Conservative MPs in former Labor “red wall” seats also wonder what message the shakeup sends to their voters. Despite promises from a 10th source that there would be a “focus on uniting and leveling the whole country,” there is little new geographic diversity in the cabinet. “Tell me a cabinet minister who understands my voters,” complained a conservative from the north.
Late at night, Johnson answered that question by promoting one of his most loyal Red Walls, Simon Clarke, MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, to Chief Secretary of the Treasury, perhaps a signal to Chancellor Rishi Sunak of your future spending priorities. .
The layoffs were meant to come quickly after questions from the prime minister on Wednesday lunchtime. But no matter how many times Post-Its move around a blackboard in Downing Street, there is always a cabinet minister who can unleash a scandal and cause the unexpected to happen.
In the prime minister’s office in parliament, hidden behind the president’s chair, Dominic Raab roundly rejected a direct demotion from the Foreign Ministry to the Justice Ministry despite being criticized for the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan last month.
During a tense negotiation, Raab obtained the title of deputy prime minister, a job that did not exist in Johnson’s cabinet, although Raab had often been described as a de facto deputy and which will possibly give him more rights to attend vital strategic meetings.
A source close to Raab claimed it as a victory, saying “he is the Rayner of shakeup” in comparison to Keir Starmer’s failed demotion from his aide Angela Rayner, where he emerged with a more powerful role. Another of Raab’s allies dismissed that idea. “It took Angela Rayner all day, Dom did it in 45 minutes.”
However, it is difficult to argue that a step to become a law clerk is not a demotion. Raab left parliament on Wednesday afternoon with his future still uncertain before negotiations moved to Downing Street, where his new title and department were confirmed. While on his way to the Ministry of Justice in Victoria, his team went to collect the pieces of a planned trip to the United States next week that Raab would not now attend.
Although his departure had been widely reported, sources close to Raab believed that he could survive the damaging stories about his absence during the holidays during the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“He’s been treated abysmally,” an MP close to Raab raged, recalling how Factor’s deputy prime minister took over when Johnson was in intensive care with Covid last year. “This is the man who stepped forward when the prime minister was dying, ran the country and never used it to polish his own image. He’s been extremely loyal, it’s outrageous. “
Of the ministers sacked, it was Buckland, Raab’s predecessor as attorney general, for whom the ministers expressed the greatest sympathy. “What have you done wrong in the last two years? Nothing, ”said one. Another said he was “very competent and popular and will be missed.”
Few MPs had sympathy for Gavin Williamson, who is said to have delivered a farewell speech early in his apartment on Wednesday, so sure was he that his fate was sealed. Sources said he had asked in previous months to be given the post of head whip or leader of the House. Johnson did not seem to consider it necessary.
“Gav has always been seen as a great organizer of parliamentarians, but I think his star has diminished too much to be a real threat type,” said a former minister. Another minister said Williamson’s removal came “two years late.”
The appointment of Liz Truss to the Foreign Office will delight many of the party’s loyalists: some MPs had wondered aloud whether Johnson would really promote a more popular minister than him. But it has dismayed many bland conservatives who see it as another sign that the UK’s foreign policy ambitions are waning.
“Surely there must be a limit to the extent to which Truss can be over-promoted?” grumbled a high-level deputy. Another said: “Our wing of the party has suffered enough indignities in the last two years, but every time you wonder how bad things can really get, you find Liz Truss in the Foreign Office and Nadine Dorries in the cabinet too. “.
In addition to Priti Patel retaining her position as Home Secretary, there is a big winner from the shakeup: Sunak. Cabinet ministers just delivered their presentations advocating funding in the spending review next month.
Now the new cabinet ministers will be clumsily bound by their predecessors and will not be able to organize any significant change of leadership. As ministers begin to grapple with their new reports, many decisions will already be out of their hands. “It’s the government’s first rule: the Treasury always wins,” joked a senior aide.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism