POLITICS
26/07/2019 8:18 PM AEST | Updated 26/07/2019 8:18 PM AEST

How Boris Johnson’s Ruthless Reshuffle Confirmed Brexit's Very British Coup

Three years after the referendum, new PM swaps banter for brutality as he puts getting out of the EU above all else - and sets the Tories on course for a general election.

A new way was warned, was it not? Right at the start of his Tory leadership campaign, Boris Johnson made clear he was a man in a hurry.

“Delay means defeat, defeat means Corbyn,” he bellowed back in June, directly addressing a Tory party left reeling by the European election drubbing at the hands of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.

Instead of Theresa May’s “debilitating uncertainty”, he would lead a government of “clarity and decision” and deliver Brexit on October 31, come what may.

Just six weeks later, within minutes of becoming prime minister, Johnson was certainly proving decisive. His would be a Brexit government, in personnel and in deed.

The ‘night of the blond knives’ saw so many ministers - 18 people who had attended cabinet - culled that even hardened veteran MPs were shocked. This was not a reshuffle, it was a radical reboot of the Tory party in power. 

Never before has the coffin-shaped cabinet table felt more apt, as one by one Johnson either forced out or fired those who didn’t fit into the new regime.

He had already made plain that members of his government would have to pass a no-deal virility test, warning that there would only be room for those willing to accept an exit from the EU without an agreement.

Yet the scale and speed of the clear-out sent a strong signal that he meant business. We’ve had blundering Boris, bumbling Boris, even bantering Boris. This was brutal, bloody Boris, making up for lost time since his EU referendum victory three years ago.

Jeremy Hunt was summarily despatched for refusing to accept a demotion to defence, a move that felt like revenge for his “coward” attacks during the leadership campaign. Penny Mordaunt and Liam Fox were given similarly ruthless treatment, despite their Brexiteer credentials.

The regrouping of the victorious Vote Leave campaign from 2016 was undoubtedly the theme of the day, which began with the news that Dominic Cummings was being brought into No.10 as Johnson’s senior adviser.

PA Wire/PA Images
Vote Leave campaign chief Dominic Cummings

Seen by his critics as an “evil genius”, the disrupter-in-chief has been brought in to oversee the Brexit delivery task and to shake up the Whitehall he so disdains.

More than any cabinet change, Cummings’ appointment sent a signal that Johnson meant business, as it’s difficult to see him tolerating anything less than an exit by Halloween.

Add the Vote Leave alumni who won promotions or returns to government - Dominic Raab, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa Villiers, Esther McVey, James Cleverly - and the pattern was very clear. 

Raab in particular, who was Johnson’s first target to beat in the leadership race, looks like he has been anointed as the heir apparent, winning the plum posts of foreign secretary and first secretary of state.

Rees-Mogg, who had earlier waved his order paper as Theresa May departed her final prime minister’s question time, did more than most to wield the assassin’s blade that led to her demise. His reward was to be made Leader of the Commons.

If it all seemed brusque, it was meant to be, as this was unfinished business. History is usually written by the winners and many Brexiteers felt that their victory was simply not reflected by Theresa May, a Remainer, moving into No.10. 

Convinced that Brexit is ultimately a binary choice that cannot be triangulated, Johnson allies believe that only by ramming through the UK’s ‘independence’ can the Tory party move on and have a hope of staying in power. 

His own resignation from government last year sparked what’s turned into a very British coup, setting in train a leadership challenge and parliamentary rebellion that ousted a sitting prime minister.

And in many ways, Johnson is finally delivering not just on Brexit but on the revolutionary fervour that underpinned the Leave vote. For Brexiteers, this is a modern-day glorious revolution, a peaceful transfer of power that changes fundamentally how Britain is governed.

When Johnson arrived at Buckingham Palace to be installed as PM, having been briefly halted by climate change activists, he was the model of propriety.

But it was when he arrived in Downing Street and delivered his first speech that this radicalism became plain to see.

With boos and jeers of anti-Brexit protestors drifting in from nearby Whitehall, the new premier wasted no time on sentiment or even anything more than perfunctory praise for May.

Referring to her not by name but merely as “my predecessor”, he instead attacked “three years of indecision”.

In case we missed the point, he added “after three years of unfounded self-doubt it is time to change the record”, adding a withering barb that he “will work flat out to give this country the leadership it deserves”. Brutal Boris, once more.

PA Wire/PA Images

Apart from a few journalistic flourishes to lay into “the doomsters, the gloomsters” - a line that he knew would get onto the TV news - this was a largely gag-free speech with a sober tone.

He packed in a lot of specific promises, from a higher living wage to free ports. The real focus however was on Brexit, and a mantra that the UK will be “ready” for the “remote possibility” of no-deal.

What didn’t seem remote was the prospect of a snap election. And in so many ways, this felt like the start of an election campaign. As Johnson scythed through May’s own policy blunders of 2017 - social care, police on the streets, GP waiting times, animal welfare - with promises of his own, it felt as if he was fattening up the Tory message for a trip to the polls.

In perhaps a Freudian slip, he even said that the Leave vote showed the British people “wanted their laws made by people that they can elect and they can remove from office”. Will they get to elect him directly soon, or remove him from office?

Johnson tried to woo the British public into submission, even though he often sounded as though he was writing a love letter to himself. Talk of a “brand and political personality….admired and even loved around the world” and praise for “our inventiveness, for our humour” felt like his own political CV.

On Brexit, there was a clear signal that if we end up with no-deal, he will blame Brussels’ refusal to renegotiate. Some Tory Remainers will see that as an early sign that he prefers the ‘easy’ option of leaving without an agreement to the ‘harder’ option of finding a deal that works for all sides.

One young Brexiteer MP Lee Rowley once jibed at May that “stamina is not a strategy”. Pure ‘belief’ and ‘optimism’ are not strategies either, but they seem to be party of a wider plan to get out first and ask questions later.

For his critics inside and outside the Tory party, perhaps the most chilling part of the new PM’s speech yesterday was the breezy way in which he dismissed the dangers of a no-deal exit. There would be ‘difficulties’, he said, but they could be overcome with preparation.

Whether a snap election comes before or after Halloween, Johnson looks up for it. One recent poll suggested that he could get a working majority of more than 60 by reducing the Brexit Party vote and exploiting the divided Remainer vote.

One of the most important quotes yesterday came not from No.10 but from Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman after PMQs. Asked if Labour was a Remain party, he replied: “No...we are not in that zone..We’ve never said that. We’ve said we will campaign for Remain against a damaging Tory deal or against no-deal in a referendum, but there are other circumstances that could occur.”

With the official Opposition abandoned by many of its voters and split over not just Brexit but anti-Semitism, Johnson’s allies believe there will never be a better time to hold an election than in the next few months.

Tory moderates will counter that only this week a YouGov survey showed the Lib Dems up three, while Farage’s party was down two, and that Jo Swinson’s party gains in the South  would outweigh any wins from Labour in the north and midlands. But many around Johnson see a snap poll as inevitable, and think a ‘Boris bounce’ will soon appear in the opinion polls.

One key reason is that to deliver any of his agenda he needs a real majority. When Blair uttered his famous ‘a new day has dawned, has it not?’ line in 1997, he did so on the back of a 197 majority.  Brexiteers want to turn back the clock as if it was June 24, 2016, the day after the EU referendum, but lack the numbers in parliament to do so.

If Johnson does decide to opt for an election, it will ultimately be his decision rather than that of his advisers. Although he delegates where necessary, one key ally says that the big calls, from cabinet posts to policy priorities, are all his.

“What people don’t understand about Boris and what they massively underestimate is the extent to which he does stuff himself,” they say.

“Someone said to me the other day, who’s writing his speech for the steps of Downing Street? This is a guy who is paid a fortune for his words and he writes his own speeches. It’s the same with reshuffles. May would rely on lots of other people to sort them but Boris spends time thinking about it.”

One campaign colleague adds: “He’s the least ‘listened to the last person he’s heard from’ person I know. What he actually does is give the person he’s listening to the impression everything they’re saying is golden. He doesn’t then decide to necessarily follow it. 

“You feel at liberty to give him a slice of your mind. During the MPs stage of the leadership election, some were open, some were unbelievably direct and rude to him. But in the end he has the last laugh.” 

Seen by his critics as full of bluster on Brexit, he’s now calling the bluff of Remainers in his party. On the hottest day of the year, he’s turned up the political heat yet further, seemingly daring his enemies to side with Corbyn in a no confidence vote this autumn.

The danger of course is that the Remainers are so outraged by his ruthlessness and the apparent lurch rightwards - Patel is the first pro-hanging home secretary in decades - that they do everything they can to stop the Tory party looking like it’s made in Donald Trump’s image.

Trump was the love that dare not speak its name on Wednesday. The only hint of a desperation to do a UK-US trade deal came in Johnson’s reference to freeing the UK from ‘rules’ on GM crops, post-Brexit. 

The speech itself was as free-wheeling as Trump’s and there were definite echoes of the former US Apprentice star’s catchphrase ‘You’re Fired!’

Some naively assumed Trump’s fiery rhetoric on the campaign trail would be ditched once he was in the White House. And it now looks like a similar mistake to believe Johnson wouldn’t follow through on his own campaign pledges that won him a landslide among the Tory faithful.

One man speaking in Eton, home to Johnson’s school, put it bluntly on the BBC: “He’s another Trump, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s good - looking after his own people first.” Johnson certainly did that with the Vote Leave crew on his first day in office.

For some former ministers shaken by the day’s events, the biggest risk is that he will undermine the office of prime minister itself, just as Trump has tarnished the presidency.

And ruthless sackings inevitably haunt a PM with a wafer-thin majority. It’s worth remembering that within a year of Harold Macmillan’s own ‘night of the long knives’, he was out of office.

For Boris Johnson all that matters now is getting to October 31. But there’s another date pencilled into some rebel Tory diaries already: November 19. That would mark the 118 days that would mean Johnson was the shortest-lived prime minister in British history. It’s going to be a rough ride.