Last Thursday, July 14, 2016, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew called on his newly appointed British counterpart, Philip Hammond, at No. 11 Downing Street in London. Coming out afterwards, he tripped on the curb, momentarily caught like that proverbial rabbit in the headlights as the media scrum outside roared questions at him. The stumble was understandable enough. Anyone who has been to Downing Street knows that it’s a small and intimate residential space, and for an American official not used to the claustrophobic rough and tumble world of British politics (think of the bear-pit of Prime Minister’s Questions), the sudden barrage of noise would be enough to faze anyone. But the secretary’s discomfort seemed to symbolize something else. He had wandered into the melee surrounding a UK cabinet reshuffle, as the new prime minister, Theresa May, formed her government. And Secretary Lew was not the only one tripped up by the results.
Governments around the world are still coming to terms with Britain voting last month to leave the European Union. But while they’re just about getting their heads round Brexit, what they had not anticipated was Boris. For the new British foreign secretary is none other than that colorful and controversial figure Boris Johnson, who led the campaign to leave the European Union. Global reaction at his appointment has combined amusement and disbelief .
You can watch here as U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner struggles, not altogether successfully, to suppress a laugh when, mid-briefing, he is informed about Johnson’s appointment.
Others have been less tactful. French Foreign Minister Jean Marc Ayrault could barely contain his irritation. “He lied a lot to the British, and now it’s him with his back against the wall,” Ayrault said of Johnson in a radio interview on Thursday. When Johnson went to the French embassy later that day to join Bastille Day celebrations, he was booed off the stage.
Behind the clownish facade, however, Johnson is a much smarter politician than many people are willing to recognize—he did, after all, win that Brexit referendum. And, as interest in his appointment illustrates, Johnson is certainly box office. But where some commentators are asking whether the new prime minister, Theresa May, has lost her mind, the truth is that the appointment of BoJo is one part of a reshuffle that for the most part looks like a shrewd piece of rhetoric and maneuver.
First, May has tackled Brexit head on, implementing what some have called a “Pottery Barn” strategy. Four leading Brexiteers—Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom—have been given the most important jobs in negotiating Britain’s EU exit. In essence, they’ve been told “You break it, you buy it,” or perhaps, more accurately, “You Brexit, you fix it.” That maneuver protects Theresa May (who voted to “remain”) against accusations of backsliding from her own Eurosceptic MPs. Moreover, in David Davis, she has at her disposal one of the toughest and most experienced negotiators with the EU. While Boris will provide an ebullient, upbeat face to the world, it is the unintimidatable Davis, a former SAS man and a Brexit true believer, who will be sitting across the table from EU negotiators hammering out the terms of Britain’s exit.
Second, Theresa May, in her first words on taking office on July 13, moved to take advantage of the civil war that has broken out in the opposition Labour party. A heave against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saw him lose a vote of confidence among his own MPs by 172 to 40 votes at the end of June. Yet because he can only be removed by a vote of the entire membership, where, thanks to hard-left entryism, he remains popular, Corbyn refuses to go. If he wins the resulting leadership contest this summer, Labour looks set to split.
On Wednesday, Theresa May moved quickly to occupy the center ground vacated by Labour. “We’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you,” she promised. “When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”
That message was reinforced by the reshuffle that followed. Following on from the Cameron government, which was dominated by the privately educated, the new cabinet is seventy per cent publicly educated, including the prime minister herself. The new education secretary, Justine Greening, becomes the first such minister to be educated at a non-selective “comprehensive” school. And in an important piece of symbolism, the new chairman of the governing Conservative party, the popular Patrick McLoughlin, is a former coal miner. As a consequence, this administration is one that looks a little more like modern Britain—an important shift if May wants to deliver on her stated commitment to building “one nation.”
Third, and to the surprise of most, the new Prime Minister immediately purged most of the vestiges of her predecessor David Cameron’s regime. Senior figures such as George Osborne, Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan and Oliver Letwin were sacked. Lower level figures associated with them, such as Greg Hands, were also dumped, as was Cameron’s Downing Street team.
In many ways, their brutal removal is more risky than the appointment of Boris Johnson. For a government with only a slim House of Commons majority, having such influential figures on the backbenches could spell trouble. That danger could be why May, in a surprise exception to the rule, appointed Gavin Williamson as Chief Whip in parliament. He was David Cameron’s private secretary until a few days ago. If anyone is able to call in favors to keep the “Cameroons” quiet, it’s him.
More pertinently, the removal of Osborne and Gove takes out of commission two of the Conservative party’s most radical (and therefore controversial) reforming figures. Few think as deeply about politics in its strategic and historical context as these two MPs. Looking at the new government team, it is not immediately apparent who will replace them as the animating forces behind policy.
Lenin once observed that in some decades nothing happens, and in some weeks, decades happen. That is the position in which Brexit Britain finds itself today. Just a few days into her premiership, Theresa May has demonstrated that she is a sure-footed operator in Downing Street. But as with “Thatcherism” before her, it is the quality of “Mayite” ideas that will go a long way to determining the future of Britain and its place in the world.