Today’s reshuffle of the cabinet by Boris Johnson – his first real opportunity to assert an undeniable authority on his government since coming to power more than six months ago – was much more than the rearranging of deck chairs we’ve become accustomed to with ministerial reshuffles of late. This was phase one of precision surgery which, should things progress as planned for the strategists behind the doors of number 10, will see Whitehall and the country beyond remodelled over the coming five years.
This reshuffle was brutal and it was authoritarian. But more important than that for real lives, it was incisive. Brutally incisive.
What we are seeing begin to emerge is, as expected back in December, a very different kind of Conservative government.
It’s disarmingly easy to dismiss any move by the Tory party as inherently wrong or dangerous, but down that path lies more defeats for the left. Strategically this government is reframing British politics at pace, taking advantage first of their head start against the most incompetent opposition since 1983; and now of the rudderless Labour party as it continues its internal wrangling.
Whoever emerges as Labour leader will need to find a way to oppose this new, populist Tory machine. We will see increased expenditure, we’ll see them deliver upon and exceed their relatively modest public service pledges, and we’ll see them deliver on a range of “anti-establishment” measures which will chime in the kind of places they need to retain come 2024.
The Tories under Johnson are stealing some of Labour’s best lines, and it pushes Labour into a corner where they will need to carve out their own strategic position or die. Continue to drift further left and Labour will never return, but there is no space for Labour to the right of the Tory party. Labour will need guile, imagination and pragmatism, qualities which are in little evidence over the past half decade.
So what’s to celebrate for the owners of those “borrowed votes” which swept Johnson to power back in December?
Well, there’s the departures of Andrea Leadsom, Theresa Villiers and Esther McVey, none of whom will be a loss to government. But those are easy (and cheap) shots.
What’s more important is the departure of a Chancellor who was resistant to loosening the purse strings to facilitate Boris Johnson’s much-vaunted “levelling-up”. However cynical we on the left might be about motives – and we should be cynical – the fact is that this is a government laser-focused on staying in power. To do that they must deliver in coalmining, pottery and mill towns. That is the good news for the left-behind, and that is the purpose behind this reshuffle.
Right now Boris Johnson has incredible power over his party and over Parliament. People who came to politics during the horrendous Brexit Parliament of 2017-2019 may be surprised to find themselves now in a world where Parliament is of little consequence, and where the Speaker has limited function. But this is, in fact, a return to the format of politics that has dominated in Britain for most of the past century and beyond. It is the politics of the majority, and that majority is wielded now by a man who has delivered power to the Conservative party by finding a way to talk to the masses which has cut across old divides.
Boris Johnson – and more pertinently his key adviser Dominic Cummings – has positioned the Tory party in territory wilfully vacated by Labour under the hapless leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and the far-left clique around him. Johnson with Cummings know – as did Blair with Alastair Campbell and Thatcher with Keith Joseph before them – that you don’t win an election by appealing to your core support. History tells us again and again that you win by reaching out and taking territory from your opponents, and you stay in office by retaining that territory.
And retaining that territory is key to the Johnson/Cummings plan to win power again in 2024, all of which brings us right back, full circle, to the reshuffle today.
Johnson owes a great deal to Cummings, first for the delivery of the Brexit vote, second for the delivery of the Premiership, and third for the delivery of his own substantial majority. Dominic Cummings has earned the trust of the prime minister, and together they have every democratic right to carry though on their agenda. That is true, whether the rest of us like it or not.
Today they began asserting that right and we should be under no illusions that what lies ahead is a remodelling of the very pillars of British life. Government, the civil service, the judiciary and the BBC will all feel the brunt of Cummings’ reforming zeal married with Johnson’s popular touch over the coming four and a half years. And Labour should be warned, because together Johnson and Cummings find themselves on the same side of the big arguments as the majority in Britain today.
Many of us should benefit from those reforms, but they will come at a huge cost to the fabric of our society as old ties will be loosened and new ones bound in the years to come. Whether the price is worth paying, for many, only time will tell.
But here will sound a note of caution to those in the Tory party with an ear to those lessons from the past. For Johnson stands with his sherpas today at the peak of the summit. But they have bigger mountains yet to scale, and that way lies opportunity for his opponents.
This may well be – although by no means necessarily so – the pinnacle of Johnson’s authority. The more enemies he creates now, the more trouble he stores up for himself when his stock is not so high. And be in no doubt: it is on days like today when Prime Ministers store up their enemies for the future.
The Prime Minister, for now, is seizing opportunity with relentless – and unopposed – fervour. Those who would oppose him – most notably the Labour party – must adapt, and find their own ways of speaking to a British public whose concerns Labour seems deaf toward.
It truly is a time of new realities in British politics.