UK Cabinet Reshuffle Shows Boris Johnson’s Iron Grip

It wasn’t quite a Saint Valentine’s Day massacre, but Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle proved a brutal affair. The axe fell on Britain’s second most powerful politician, ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid, forced out after refusing to sack his senior staff. That was a condition demanded by Johnson’s top aide Dominic Cummings—an unelected official pursuing what those in power covet above all else: control.

Why Did the Cabinet Shuffle Go Haywire?

The cabinet shuffle, in fact, was supposed to be a rather tame shake-up of the government’s top team. A few departures, nobody too senior, and a raft of new talent handed junior ministerial roles. And then the news broke: Javid, the man in charge of Britain’s economic strategy, had gone. 

For an hour he argued with Johnson and Cummings, making his case clear: no self-respecting minister could be expected to fire his entire team. He hoped, perhaps, that the prime minister might’ve buckled, realizing that he was asking too much. But Johnson’s faith in his pugilistic chief-of-staff was unwavering, so Javid had to go. 

It was a brutal beatdown for the Treasury man. He had had his differences with the prime minister—as all chancellors do—but few believed that his job was genuinely at risk. With a little over six months under his belt, Javid becomes Britain’s shortest-serving finance chief in fifty years, and one of very few not to deliver a budget.

Johnson Has Shown Himself to be a Ruthless Leader

That latter point is particularly cruel—Javid was just weeks away from announcing his economic plan. But Johnson has shown himself to be a ruthless leader. The man who ran against him for the Conservative leadership—Jeremy Hunt—was promptly removed from government after the election, as was Penny Mordaunt, one of his supporters. Both had been respected ministers, but their lack of loyalty to Johnson proved fatal.

An adviser to the former Chancellor was summarily dismissed by Cummings and Johnson shortly after and her boss was given no prior notice. And then, in September, twenty-one Tory MPs—some of the party’s best-loved among them—were sacked for failing to back No. 10’s Brexit strategy. In each case, the Johnson/Cummings duopoly sought to exert utter control—and succeeded.

Javid’s Impossible Choice

And so it was with the recent reshuffle. Javid could have stayed, but only if his most senior staff did not. Their removal was necessary to establish a new adviser unit jointly run by No. 10 and the Treasury—a group which would have been answerable to Cummings, insiders say.       

A departure from precedent, this would have seen the chancellor’s autonomy from the prime minister diminish markedly. This was entirely unpalatable for Javid; but his successor—rising star Rishi Sunak—seems to have swallowed the pill.

Sunak is nothing more than No 10’s “stooge,” Labour’s John McDonnell said as the news broke. Not likely. Well respected and a formidable operator, Sunak will want to make his own mark. But he owes his meteoric rise to the prime minister; that, he won’t be allowed to forget.

Johnson and Cummings’ fingerprints will be all over his first budget. They want something Javid wasn’t prepared to give: a bump in public spending to “level up” the UK. That means loosening the purse strings, increasing the national deficit, and investing in top-dollar public works. Those, Sunak will deliver. 

The Johnson Administration has Made a New Enemy in Javid

But dispatching a popular chancellor—as Javid was—to the backbenches is risky. Unbridled by Cabinet rules, he’s now free to criticize the government as he sees fit. And he’ll be among friends: other senior ministers let go in the clampdown. 

Julian Smith, the former Northern Ireland Secretary, is chief among these. Winning plaudits for his work restoring Belfast’s Stormont Assembly, Smith was respected and well liked, particularly in Ireland. “One of Britain’s finest politicians,” remarked a sombre Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, soon after his dismissal. 

Where did it go wrong for him? Control, again, seems to have been the issue. The deal he helped broker was welcomed by No. 10, but he had communicated badly with the prime minister, reports suggest. Some might say that justifies his removal. After all, a government can’t function without robust interconnectedness. But a constant turnover of staff surely hampers progress.

Johnson and Cummings believe the opposite, presumably; that fresh, loyal blood must be brought in to ensure efficiency. They might be right. Control might garner results. But it also risks opening the door to illiberal rule. In a democracy, that’s rarely good news.