Boris Johnson’s cabinet shows us exactly what kind of leader he will be

Ready, set—no.
Ready, set—no.
Image: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
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Until the moment he won the Conservative leadership contest on Tuesday, it was hard to predict just what sort of UK prime minister Boris Johnson would be.

It might seem odd to describe Johnson as a bit of an unknown quantity. From his stints as mayor of London and UK foreign secretary, to his work as a journalist, commentator, and occasionally comedic TV show host, to the praise he has received from Donald Trump—Johnson is hardly is new to the political scene.

But there have been many Boris Johnsons.

There’s been the liberal Tory Boris (2008 to 2016), mayor of one of the most multicultural cities on earth, who welcomed people with open arms,  declaring in 2013: “I’m probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.” And there’s been the Brexit Boris (2016-present), who supported a campaign to leave the European Union which shamelessly played into voters’ xenophobic fears.

As a result, trying to guess just which iteration of the posh boy with the blonde mop walked into No. 10 Downing Street yesterday proved difficult—until he started assembling his cabinet. Judging from the choices he has made so far, Johnson’s professed ambition to unite the Conservative party—and the country— was either a lie, or is already a failure.

Instead, the members of parliament Johnson has chosen to run the country in his government show that his main focus will be to leave the European Union on the October 31 deadline, deal or no deal, even if it means alienating British businesses, voters who wanted to either remain in or at least stay close to the EU, and whoever had hopes of dealing with Britain on other issues during that period.

On Wednesday, Johnson and his acolytes performed a ministerial cull of a brutality rarely seen in Westminster. Gone was Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary who’d run against him but had said he would be happy to be in a Boris cabinet (albeit only in a senior position). Gone too was Penny Mordaunt, the well-liked defense secretary who had been Johnson’s colleague at Vote Leave but ultimately backed Hunt.

Immigration minister Caroline Nokes was sacked and learned about it when a journalist tweeted it out; housing secretary James Brokenshire was sacked despite backing Johnson’s campaign.

In total, 18 ministers resigned or were fired from the cabinet in what was a statement of intent: this is not simply a change of prime minister, it is an entirely different government.

So, who did Boris Johnson want as his inner circle? The answer will not please those on the center-right who thought they were in for a unity administration.

Take Priti Patel, for example. A former lobbyist for Big Tobacco, she first made the news in 2011 when, as a Tory rising star, she mentioned her support for the death penalty. She was also part of a gang nicknamed “The New Right,” a group of younger libertarian Conservative MPs who published a “Britannia Unchained” pamphlet in 2012, calling British workers “among the worst idlers in the world” and making the case for a smaller welfare state and working conditions similar to Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s.

Patel eventually joined the cabinet under Theresa May as international development secretary, but had to leave in 2017 after being found to have had unauthorized meetings with Israeli politicians while on holiday in the country. She is now back, as Home Secretary.

Previously in charge of the UK’s departure from the EU, Dominic Raab ran for the leadership against Boris Johnson and as the hardest Brexiteer on the slate. Besides his views on Europe, Raab had gained notoriety within the Conservative party for being one of the co-authors of Britannia Unchained, and for his colorful opinions on gender equality.

“While we have some of the toughest anti-discrimination laws in the world, we are blind to some of the most flagrant discrimination—against men. From the cradle to the grave, men are getting a raw deal,” he once wrote for website PoliticsHome, concluding that “feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots.” He is now foreign secretary.

This leaves us with one last Great Office of State; the Treasury. The new Chancellor of the Exchequer is Sajid Javid, who came fourth in the leadership contest and, contrary to the others, backed Remain in the 2016 referendum. Javid will likely oversee an expansion in public spending in preparation for Brexit.

This doesn’t mean Javid should be expected to be softer on Brexit than his new colleagues; his most senior adviser in the department will be Matthew Elliott, who ran the Vote Leave campaign, was editor-at-large of news website BrexitCentral, and founded small state right-wing pressure group the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Besides, Javid is die-hard Thatcher fan— a portrait of her hangs in his office—and has frequently discussed his passion for libertarian icon Ayn Rand.

Finally, Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s new senior advisor, is a controversial figure; who former prime minister David Cameron once called a “career psychopath”. Cummings was the brains behind the Vote Leave campaign, and is as bright as he is unpleasant to those he despises, which is seemingly most people.

As Johnson’s new senior advisor in No10, he is expected to be an effective (if brutal) operator, getting things done with little regard for how popular they actually are.

The political leadership Johnson appears to be preparing himself and his government for is one focused on preparing to leave the European Union without a deal—something the vast majority of MPs have already opposed, and said would do significant harm to the British economy, but cannot stop themselves, as it remains the default option on October 31.

It is unclear that his bravado will get him anywhere with the EU, however, as the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has already warned (paywall) its nation states that the new PM is trying to “heap pressure on the unity of the EU27,” and called his renegotiation plans “unacceptable.” The road ahead will be rocky.

Johnson may be a man of many facets. But the people he has chosen to govern with him send a clear message to Britain and whoever else is watching: get on board, or get left behind.