Making sense of Theresa May’s initial cabinet appointments
Like most of the country, I nearly fainted when I saw the breaking news alerts last night that Boris Johnson had been made Foreign Secretary by incoming Prime Minister Theresa May. Surely that’s a mistake, I thought. A quick check on Twitter and Facebook though and records of Johnson’s endless faux pas were being shared in shock and horror at the thought of this man now being the face of Britain to the rest of the world, and in charge of MI6. What was May thinking?!
And that is what I’ve been trying to get my head around. Why would May, who I genuinely do not think is either stupid or evil, put Johnson in charge or such a prestigious and sensitive government department?
In addition, why is she bringing into her cabinet two right-wingers — Liam Fox and David Davis — who seem to be the antithesis of the modern, centre-based, compassionate party she said in her acceptance speech she wanted to lead?
After reflecting on the questions a little overnight, I have a few thoughts. And my main thought is simply this: politics.
Theresa May is a politician and politicians make political choices. We may critique that, but the reality of being a party of power is that it inevitably involves pragmatism and compromise. (Labour need to re-learn this rapidly.)
The Conservative Party have a tiny majority in the House of Commons and so for May to be able to govern at all, she has to keep every element of her party on side. She can’t afford to alienate the right of the party, nor those who voted for Brexit. By bringing in Johnson, Fox, and Davis, May will have most of the party on side. As a result, her ability to govern with a small majority will now be easier.
In addition, by bringing in Fox and Davis in particular to handle new trade agreements and our exit from the European Union, whatever deals we end up with will have been arranged by true Brexiters and so no blame can be laid at May’s feet. When, for instance, we fail to get the trade agreements we need without compromising on free movement of people, May cannot be accused of a stitch up. So these appointments mean that people who voted Leave will be fully bought into May’s government and it’ll almost certainly win over many voters in Labour heartlands who are disenchanted with the Labour Party and wanted to leave the EU.
In other words, from May’s point of view, these appointments are eminently sensible politics. These aren’t random appointments; they are both strategic and reasonable (in the true sense of the word).
This doesn’t fully explain the appointment of Johnson however. Why appoint to such a sensitive role someone with such a history of foreign affairs blunders? It feels like a disaster waiting to happen. And it may be. But here’s a few thoughts on what may have persuaded her to make this choice.
First, she is appointing him to a very serious office. It feels somewhat similar to the recent appointment of Dylan Hartley as England’s rugby captain. He was a rugby player who couldn’t control his emotions, regularly made rash choices, constantly found himself in trouble, and could not be relied on at the best of times. So Eddie Jones, the new England coach, goes and makes him captain. I was hugely critical of the choice, but I was wrong. The extra responsibility has turned around his career. Hartley has been disciplined and focussed and led England to their longest winning streak in years. In other words the extra responsibility has brought out the best from him. This, perhaps, is what May is hoping for. But it’s a very high risk strategy.
Another reason for the appointment is probably simply a case of keeping your friends close but your enemies even closer. And that, coupled with the reality that his role will keep him out of the country lots, will minimise his ability to plot and cause trouble on the sidelines. So, again, politics.
In an ideal world you simply want the best person for the job getting the job. But the politics of power is a pragmatic business and these early appointments highlight mainly how aware May is of what she needs to do pragmatically to be able to govern effectively and push through legislation in the House of Commons.
There’s much more that could be said and, to be clear, this isn’t a defence of her choices, nor agreement with them, but it does help me process why I think she’s made them.