It is easy to mock a Cabinet reshuffle that results in Dominic Raab being appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Nadine Dorries taking the reins at Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. To the interested outsider Boris Johnson’s approach to Cabinet has often felt like an inversion of that taken by Gordon Brown. Brown famously recruited ‘talented outsiders’ (and Digby Jones) to his front bench to create a ‘Government of All the Talents’. It sometimes feels as though Johnson is determined to ignore talent – even that of loyal parliamentarians of his own party – entirely. But to sneer is to misunderstand the Prime Minister’s aims and to misread strength as weakness.
Boris Johnson does not wish to be the Prime Minister of a Government of All the Talents. He wishes to be King. And his appointees are not – on the whole – selected in order to drive forward personal passions or projects of reform. They are picked for their loyalty, for their ability to demonstrate commitment to Boris’ vision of Brexit (despite how they once might have felt) and for their willingness to perform similar such switcheroos without apparent embarrassment on a myriad of less consequential matters. It is not a Cabinet. It is a Court.
And this is not – at this time – some stunning miscalculation on the Prime Minister’s part. So his front bench is sub-par, so what? Politics in Britain is not unlike the old maxim about outrunning a bear – you don’t have to be faster than your ursine pursuer, just quicker than the other fella running away. If the bear is the British electorate then the Labour front bench is that other fella. And while the Government may not be in the finest shape, the Labour Party resembles a man with a limp who smokes forty a day. So, from the Prime Minister’s perspective, why take the risk of being outshone by his colleagues when there is zero risk of his Government being outshone by the opposition?
The central tension that makes British politics work has gone limp. A thumping majority, an opposition more invested in fratricide than electoral resurrection, a public that remains reluctant to blame him personally for the cataclysms his Government has presided over. All of this insulates Johnson from many of the concerns and calculations that routinely constrain a Prime Minister as they look to refresh their top team. He is an unusually free actor. And that makes for terrible government under our model.
There are some nods to competence and strategy. Gove will give communities and housing his all. Kwarteng and Wallace – both generally regarded as competent – remain at BEIS and MOD respectively. Anne-Marie Trevelyan is promoted and is generally well thought of. But overall this is not a reset or a refresh. This reshuffle is a punishment beating. It is a warning. Do not embarrass or upset your king – either with what you say or by being so egregiously and performatively bad at your job that the public begin to blame him for your inadequacy. Otherwise, do what you like. Do nothing, if you want. Thrive or drown, try or don’t, in this Government the Prime Minister is House and House always wins.