And so, it’s official. Having triumphed with a thumping victory over his rival Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson will tomorrow realise a lifetime’s ambition when he enters through the hallowed door of Number 10 as our nation’s new Prime Minister.
The scale of his victory with the party membership defied many of his allies and critics alike. Coupled with a resounding mandate from the parliamentary party, Johnson must not waste time in leveraging his remarkable political capital in shaping his top-team and defining his political priorities and vision.
His first port of call will be to shape a new administration, with the key appointments of Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Chief Whip likely to be unveiled tomorrow evening, closely followed by a wider reshuffle which may run into the weekend. Having clearly committed to delivering Brexit by October 31, “do or die”, we can expect his fellow Brexiteers to be handsomely rewarded.
Although no jobs have been promised as of yet, Johnson is thought to have spent the past 48 hours in lockdown finalising the makeup of his first cabinet. It is thought that the race to replace Philip Hammond has coalesced around four possible candidates – Sajid Javid, Matt Hancock, Andrea Leadsom and the effervescent Liz Truss. It is also anticipated that key personnel from his London Mayoralty will also be rewarded – with James Cleverly and Kit Malthouse both tipped for high office.
Having finalised his top-team, attention will soon turn to shaping his wider team of officials. He will be supported in that regard by Sir Edward Lister, his former right-hand man at City Hall, who has led Johnson’s transition planning and is tipped to be his Chief of Staff. Other key appointments are likely to include Munira Mirza as head of an expanded policy unit, and his longstanding aide, Ben Gasgoine, as Deputy Chief of Staff. The changing of the guard at Downing Street will be confirmed by the Vote Leave takeover of Number 10 and the appointment of the talented Lee Cain and Rob Oxley as Director of Comms and Press Secretary respectively.
Given his precarious parliamentary majority, Johnson will also be preoccupied by putting the Conservative Party on an election-footing, as a snap Autumn election cannot be ruled out at this stage. With party coffers running bare and party headquarters still reeling from May’s European election drubbing, Johnson will be determined to appoint a Party Chairman who can grab the bull by the horns, tap Tory donors and raise morale at CCHQ.
In a moment of carefully choreographed political theatre, Johnson will be determined to use his first keynote speech to the nation outside Number 10 to burnish his One Nation Credentials and to set his stall. At a time of unprecedented division and acrimony within the country, this first speech will be a premiership-defining opportunity to offer a conciliatory, yet positive vision to party and country, both of which have been demoralised by the dearth of political leadership in recent years.
We can expect Johnson to reiterate his campaign pledge to invest in major infrastructure projects, rebalance the economy in favour of the North, and raise educational attainment and school standards. It is these centrist credentials which he exhibited so often as Mayor of London which many Tory moderates hope will prevail and come to define his premiership. Stung by his early campaign commitment to slash the top-rate of tax however, Johnson may not be quite as forthcoming about his immediate fiscal priorities. These will likely be saved as giveaways in a future Budget as evidence of a Brexit dividend.
And for the right of the party, Johnson’s election will signal that ‘they have got their party back’ (as Neil Kinnock famously remarked when Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader). Having tolerated David Cameron’s modernisation agenda and Theresa May’s vacillations, many Conservative members may feel that they finally have a leader who speaks their language when he addresses the Conference platform this Autumn in Manchester.
There will then follow the traditional flurry of congratulatory phone calls from world leaders, including President Trump, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel. With Brexit clearly the defining issue of his premiership, what Johnson says on these calls will go a long way towards determining whether the UK can reach a compromise with their European counterparts ahead of October 31. We can also expect the summer recess to be preoccupied by no-deal planning, including a major public information campaign to prepare businesses and the wider public alike.
In addition to foreign leaders, Johnson can also be expected to conduct a whistle-stop tour of the four home nations as part of his charm offensive to burnish his Unionist credentials. We can anticipate early meetings with Arlene Foster of the DUP, whose parliamentary support will be vital, along with Mark Drakeford, the Welsh First Minister, and a ‘lively’ encounter with Nicola Sturgeon within his first week.
Despite his resounding victory, Johnson’s honeymoon may prove short-lived. The political travails which lie ahead have been made clear less than 48 hours before entering Number 10, with the extraordinary revelation of a plot by a senior Conservative to force an effective vote of confidence in his leadership on day one. With the suspension of Charlie Elphicke from the parliamentary party, and the prospect of a challenging by-election in Brecon (Wales), Theresa May’s current working majority of four could soon be whittled down to one, or wiped out altogether.
With up to 30 Tory MPs thought to share Chancellor Philip Hammond and Justice Secretary David Gauke’s determination to prevent the UK from leaving the EU without a deal, and a smaller cabal including Dominic Grieve who would go so far as to vote down their own Government as a last resort in a confidence motion, Johnson faces a monumental challenge in preserving his fractious and fragile parliamentary coalition.
The former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo once said: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose”. Famed for his bombast and bonhomie, Johnson will soon face some stark decisions, and will get to grips with arguably the most challenging in-tray ever inherited by a British Prime Minister.
With a commanding mandate and the sheer force of his personality, the most charismatic, possibly enigmatic politician of the past generation, will no doubt assume power with a fair wind, but tumultuous waters lay ahead.
Tomos Davies, Former Conservative special adviser and parliamentary candidate
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January 21, 2021