Right tools for the job? MICHAEL WHITE on the week the inmates took over Number 10 with a vengeance… literally.
As the blood dries on the cabinet room wall after Vote Leave’s Whitehall coup, we can all see that the crucial question arising from Boris Johnson’s “do or die” Brexit strategy is when exactly the country will face another general election – before or after the promised Halloween departure date – and on whose terms? Theories abound, but no one really knows, least of all the World King himself, dashing round “Awesome Foursome” capitals this week like a gambler high-rolling with other people’s lives and money.
Does the excitement keep his depression at bay, I often wonder? He’s provocatively pushed his luck with Merkel and Macron, with Jean-Claud Juncker despite the touching exchange of mobile phone numbers. He’s enraged Holyrood’s Nicola Sturgeon, fired up her Indy base and cold-shouldered Dublin’s Leo Varadkar. No direct talks without prior withdrawal of the Irish backstop formula, eh? Is this an updated version of fantasy football, is the Johnson team equipped with virtual reality headsets, pumped up on computer generated idiocy (CGI)?
“Move fast and break things,” is what the anti-democrat, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, is supposed to have told his team. “Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” Is that what the Johnsonians think they are doing? Did Sunderland and Stourbridge vote for this?
What the first 36 hours of the new era had already made abundantly clear is that the prime minister’s conciliatory platitudes on day one were just that, forgotten within hours. Instead he cleared out Theresa May’s cabinet and installed what is mostly a mixture of ideological desperadoes and second rate placemen (and women), all of them pledged to do “whatever it takes” to depart the Belgian Empire on October 31. “Ruthless” was a vital quality that his biographer, Andrew Gimson, drew to my attention last winter. Point taken.
Another of Gimson’s plus-points was Johnson’s ability to attract talent to do the hard graft while he handles the voters, front-of-house. Not to judge by his cabinet pick, he doesn’t. Here loyalty to Brexit and to the WK seem to have been the guiding principles. No room for doubters or broad church Tory moderates, none for Tory fiscal prudence either. Spreadsheet Phil Hammond and other members of the Gaukward Squad will have to settle for backbench guerrilla tactics, for select committee chairs (as Nicky Morgan did in 2016) in which they can fight their corner and not bide their time. They don’t have much.
The resistance can expect to be busy. The WK’s every utterance added another expensive campaign promise to restore anorexic public services and communities neglected by metropolitan elitists like himself. Every extravagant utterance, speech or soundbite from Boris Unleashed sounds like a rehashed Telegraph column, one from which non-readers can no longer escape. Not since Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria (1864-86) squandered his inheritance – and Bavaria’s independence – on avoidable wars and castle building has a European state experienced such full-on, romantic, escapism.
Sajid Javid as chancellor? A clever man from a clever, upwardly-mobile family, but do we need a rich investment banker, even one who grew up poor, to manage his spendthrift boss while pandering to Nigel Farage and the backlash right from behind his personal diversity shield? Surely not when the other two great offices of state, home and foreign, are held by similarly hard-nosed, second-generation types, No 10 too if we count New York-born Boris?
An ex-FCO lawyer with a dogmatic reputation, Dominic Raab persistently fails either to charm or impress as foreign secretaries need to do. As for the ambitious Cameron “A List” candidate, Priti Patel, elevated to the home office, for sheer unsuitability that is as shocking as making Boris Johnson foreign secretary in 2016. Nothing has emerged this week about this former Referendum Party press officer’s lobbying links and policy instincts that might ease Whitehall’s disquiet. It’s OK in my book to support capital punishment – currently out of fashion, rarely for long – much more suspicious to declare a change of heart as a career move. She did the same on aid. “Not quite sixteen annas to the rupee,” as my father’s generation used to say.
Esther McVey and Cheddar cheese nationalist, Liz Truss, both ambitious” New Right” renegades from leftish backgrounds, also come across as a pair of lightweight chancers. If retread Theresa Villiers, a direct descendant of Edward II (hardly an encouraging detail), ever did anything to deserve a second chance I missed it. Ditto “Michael Green”, the Johnson campaign’s spreadsheet monkey, also known as Grant Shapps.
Let’s not be too negative. The cabinet’s opening batsmen may prove as unreliable as the England XI, whose first innings was smashed by Ireland at Lords – on the morning that Theresa May walked to the pavilion. But it has some solid middle order batsmen in place. Remain resigner and First Brother, Jo J is restored as universities minister, and ex-judge Robert Buckland (justice) is solid. Remain apostate, Nicky Morgan, is also back (at culture), Amber Rudd stayed put at DWP, as did Matt Hancock at health. Andrea Leadsom, who played a smarter-than-expected (by me) hand under May, got business. Her job as leader of the Commons, went to Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq, who will have to square off against shorter John Bercow Esq over parliamentary procedure. That could be fun, but also important.
Just before the WK won the leadership, Esquire Mogg wrote a “how to solve the housing crisis” paper for the free market imans at the Raab-friendly Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). It read like a press release from the Housebuilders Federation. That venal naivety raises another worry about the new team, the “government of all the lobbyists” as the OpenDemocracy website put it. Many of them have had explicit links to powerful free market interests, people who are rarely as smart as they think, naïve or greedy about public policy, but insulated from its consequences.
Mogg Esq is quite wealthy, married to a serious rich heiress, as upwardly mobile folk often are. Black Country grammar school boy-turned corporate lawyer and ex-Remainer, Robert Jendrick, didn’t quite manage that, but married Michal Berkner, a top-flight M&A lawyer in the City. Ker-ching. There’s a lot of it about in this team, money I mean. But none to compare with Rishi Sunak, new chief secretary to the Treasury, whom I’ve only just clocked as a Radio 4 Today programme star.
Just 39, the child of middle class Indian immigrants who steered him into Britain’s elite education stream and on to, yes, investment banking, he’s obviously very bright and confidently fluent. As William Hague’s successor in 95% white Richmond he also overcame prejudice – against London smoothies as well as Indians – to win in 2015 and increase his majority from 20,000 to 23,000 in 2017. But he just happens to have married Akshata Murthy, daughter of the billionaire Indian businessman, NR Narayana Murthy.
This sort of cabinet profile isn’t normal, any more than an unwieldy cabinet of 32 is normal: the law says we can pay no more than 23, presumably the poorer ones. It’s too big to make an effective forum for decision-making which must be why there’s already an inner “war” cabinet. It is also odd that a Leave EU team, expected to deliver Brexit for a nativist insurgency against the “metropolitan elite,” globalisation and immigration, should have quite such a high proportion of cosmopolitan and “libertarian” free market types around the cabinet table. What will low-tax-and-small-state types do for Sunderland? Do they know where Stourbridge is?
Where are country squires and land owners, the One Nation Tories with a social conscience who were once part of the Tory mix? Even Margaret Thatcher tolerated Willie Whitelaw, Peter Carrington and a smattering of Jewish intellectuals, plus (for a bit) Norman St John Stevas, gay and progressive. If the Johnson cabinet of populist plutocrats is meant to represent the diversity of modern Britain – women and ethnic minorities to the fore – it’s a strange form of identity politics. Not so much the man on the Clapham omnibus as the rightwing multi-millionaire who owns it. More a Donald Trump cabinet than a John Major one I’d say. It makes Michael Heseltine look like an impoverished leftie.
In such unsettling circumstances, the rest of us would do well to keep our feet on shifting ground as best we can. Looking at the cabinet mayhem – six resignations and 11 sackings – and shake-up in No 10, two names leapt out as being of potentially critical significance. One was that of Penny Morduant, the other Dominic Cummings. Between them – or people very like them – they could prove fatal to King Bozzie Bear’s prospects if he stumbles on the madcap path he has set out for the Brexit 100 days and beyond.
It’s just a hunch. Why so? I barely know the Tory MP for Portsmouth North (since 2010), but took out shares when I heard Morduant make a witty and confident knockabout speech, moving the Loyal Address on the Queen’s Speech in 2014, the first woman to do so since 1957. She rose quickly through the party without being identified with faction, undue pushiness or intrigue. A Sunday Times profile, not intended to be the obituary it rapidly became, showed her to be shrewd and decisive, popular at the MoD during her 85-day tenure after Gavin Williamson’s “Private Pike” disaster, a team player.
Yet Williamson, the slippery leaker is back – shaping young minds at education, Heaven help us – while Morduant, the pro-Leave paratrooper’s daughter, is sacked. Not as a dud like Failing Grayling who managed to resign in time, but apparently for the crime of independent thought in backing Jeremy Hunt’s leadership campaign. Worse, the outgoing foreign secretary was offered her job. An avoidably spiteful detail that, one which Hunt, the son of an admiral and ex-head prefect, rightly refused. So the plum was given to Ben Wallace of Sandhurst and the Scots Guards, a Holyrood MSP before arriving at Westminster in 2005. That sounds a more suitably promotion than Private Pike’s.
A few weeks reading novels on their August beach loungers or walking the hills (Himalayas in Rory Stewart’s case, I expect) will give MPs time to get over the fevered plotting of July and decide what to do with this delicate next stage of their careers. Along with sacked cabinet ministers and disappointed wannabes – no comeback for IDS or David Davis – there are also refusniks like kamikaze Spartan, Steve Baker, who said he didn’t want to be “powerless” in office, such is his self importance. But a man who attracts lieutenants of the quality of Mark (“Gun in my mouth”) Francois is easily marginalised, whether or not the Johnson gamble succeeds by Halloween.
Now that the Brexiteers have total control of British policy (the wider world is a different matter, but don’t tell them yet) they have no excuse for failure. The initiative falls to their opponents. That requires visible and articulate leadership to promote a second referendum, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown still do, or a relatively sensible Brexit+Deal. With due respect to Blair and Brown, less to their successors in the shadow cabinet, no such leader is yet visible, alas.
At this stage it is hardly likely to be Morduant (46). But, apart from courage and conviction, she has one priceless quality for our frivolous times: a cool wit. Asked by a silly man at a candidate selection conference about motherhood (“and will we be having children?”) she replied:” You’re very attractive, but we’ve only just met.” Ouch. That doesn’t sound like the sort of woman who would fall for a Boris Johnson chat-up line, which may help explain her dismissal.
It does sound like the sort of Royal Naval reservist and philosophy graduate (she is both) who might make other MPs laugh at King Boris’s bluster rather than with it. During Thursday’s marathon Q&A before the Commons rose until September 5, several women MPs came after the predatory plotter in a noticeably sharp way. It was Labour’s Liz Kendall who reminded him that if optimism was enough in politics we would all be “waltzing around on his garden bridge and jetting off from Boris Island airport.” The MeToo sisterhood’s instinct for revenge may be one to watch.
In addition to being a laugh-a-minute funny man, I keep being told that our new PM is “charismatic” and “clever.” Yet I have heard him speak often enough – in private as well as public – without being convinced of either proposition. The chaotic clowning cheers up demoralised Tory audiences, as the Faragiste defector, Ann Widdecombe, once remarked. But it is as much a polished routine as a Tommy Cooper sketch. Voters who expected more from Boris than from Tommy may quickly rumble the evasions and ambiguities which the clowning disguises. “Awesome foursome” rebranding isn’t enough. My hunch is that the honeymoon will be brief. Hence this past week’s frenzy of pseudo-activity.
As for the cleverness it is usually of the lazy, anti-intellectual kind, harnessed to populist one-liners, not to serious thought. Ex-editors Max Hastings (Telegraph) and Matthew D’Ancona (Spectator) – though not yet Charles Moore – who now denounce the monster they helped to create, were once delighted to print his clownish schoolboy inventions – lies which so outraged Brussels and still do. As the unabashed Irish intellectual, Fintan O’Toole, noted in his magnificent dissection of Johnson’s character in last week’s TNE, the prime minister seems uneasily aware of his own ill-disciplined weakness of will at this fateful juncture in Britain’s destiny. A Churchill or a Thatcher he is not.
What stands between the World King and likely ignominy may well be my other tip of the week, Dominic Cummings, newly appointed as King Bozzie Bear’s chief of staff at No 10. Unlike the boss, Cummings is both clever and serious, he got the Oxford First in Classics which eluded Boris. He is also a Mark Zuckerberg breaker of things, dripping with contempt for what he sees as second rate politicians and civil servants and – by implication – the rest of us. He reads widely and thinks deeply, he writes a clever blog which the Daily Borisgraph would never dare to print.
But he is also dangerous, a “career psychopath” as David Cameron once put it when he worked for Michael Gove – or was it the other way around? – at education. Not mad, always a cheap jibe, but certainly a wrecker who has rarely stayed in one job for very long. A middle class boy from Durham he tried to start an airline in Russia after graduating (it made a single flight), briefly ran a think tank, then a free school. What he shows persistent talent at doing – as Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal showed in Brexit: The Uncivil War – is in running campaigns, mostly against things.
He campaigned against John Prescott’s hack-handed plans for an elected North East Assembly, against the euro and mostly famously as campaign director of Vote Leave, author of the brilliantly cynical ‘Take back control’ slogan. As an exponent of the idea of turning Britain into a “meritocratic technopolis,” I don’t think he means you or Sunderland taking it back, or even Durham. As our growing appreciation of the dark side of Silicon Valley’s misuse of data harvesting confirms, there are important implications for political campaigning here which the likes of Cummings and Vladimir Putin were quicker to grasp than Hilary Clinton or Paul Dacre. Most of us are catching up only slowly. Not for nothing is the phrase “dictator envy” sometimes deployed against clever techies.
But Dom is both clever and hard working. Needless to say he has married well, to Mary Wakefield, deputy editor of the Spectator, daughter of a Northumbrian baronet and landowner who lives in a castle. Cummings will not suffer if things go wrong. Now he is back in harness with Boris and Gove, newly elevated to be minister without portfolio driving the Halloween Brexit deadline, the most significant survivor of the cabinet massacre and probably the smartest, forgiven for killing Johnson’s candidacy in 2016.
Between them the Clown, the Killer and the Career Psychopath are leading Britain towards its greatest political, economic and possibly constitutional dislocation since 1945. Dozy financial markets are finally believing this “no deal” stuff and selling sterling. Complacent EU leaders, lulled by second referendum talk, finally sense it too. Move fast and break things.