Boris Johnson’s choice to fill his cabinet with hopeless MPs is no mistake, it’s his ‘get out of Brexit failure free’ card

Sean O'Grady

Is Boris Johnson the first prime minister in history to sabotage his own cabinet, or is there something smarter going on? I certainly hope so.

By the way, I think we can discount the fuss about him purchasing a huge reinforced bed for No 10 on the taxpayer. He’s basically only got the gear he’s standing up in, and is in urgent need of social housing and a crisis loan from the DWP. He can pay it back out of the proceeds of his memoirs (which may not be long arriving). He’s a big lad too, and kipping in the back of a Toyota Previa, among the unpaid parking tickets and empty wine bottles is hardly good for his health or in keeping with the dignity of his office.

I worry about the Johnson cabinet rather more. This because of the disturbing rumours seeping out that our new prime minister (we assume) is about to bring back more has-beens, plus a few never-weres, than an edition of I’m A Celebrity Get me Out of Here. Only the grim reaper saved John McCririck from getting the call-up to take over from Chris Grayling at Transport.

When, for example, I heard that David Davis was about to be made either foreign secretary or chancellor of the exchequer – Davis is apparently under the impression that he is at his leisure to pick whichever plum he most fancies – I was puzzled. Why would Johnson want to appoint to such high ministerial office that bald bloke who used to run the Football Association and, before that, did the sports news on BBC Midlands Today?

Then I realised, of course, that the Davis in question is in fact our dear old Brexit Bulldog, the former secretary of state for exiting the Euroepan Union, who made such a superb job of the talks before. That made me even more terrified. This is the chap who the Europeans think is a character out of Dad’s Army, playing Corporal “Don’t Panic” Jones, his team “running around like idiots”.

Then there’s Jacob Rees-Mogg, supposedly the next chief secretary to the Treasury. This is the chap who, among other things, has at least fessed up and admitted that Brexit will be OK in about another half century, when Mr Rees-Mogg (surely Baron Rees-Mogg of Fogeydom by then) will be a mere century old himself, and he will have caught up with this dress sense.

Iain Duncan-Smith, the “quiet man” of the early 2000s, is going to be the chief whip, which is, ironically enough, a job that convention demands he says nothing in the Commons, so that famous frog in the throat will remain silent. He might try to turn up the volume on Philip Hammond and his new rebel army, but it didn’t work when IDS was leader, and it won’t now.

Priti Patel is to be secretary of state for the Home Office, one of the most demanding gigs in government. This is the lady who I remember used to spin for William Hague as Tory leader, until it was clear he really was a no-hoper. Then, when the going got tough, she skipped. She also had to resign from the Cabinet in 2017 because she was conducting freelance foreign policy in Israel, of all places. As far as I understand it, she wanted to divert the British aid budget to the Israeli Defence Force, which is at least radical thinking. She’s also accused of wanting to use food shortages in Ireland to coerce Dublin to concede on the backstop, which is a logical impossibility, not a political one. Maybe she also thinks, like Johnson, that all the Irish are called Murphy. Maybe they all think people are a bit thick on the other side of the Irish Sea. The evidence would suggest not.

Sir Michael “lock up your daughters” Fallon might get a job too, and won’t even be asked to go on a course first. And then there’s The Saj. Sajid Javid is more likely to get to be chancellor than Davis, which is a relief. He is very proud of the fact that he is the son of a Pakistani bus driver in Bristol, stood up to racist yobs in the playground, just like Donald Trump now, and is clever. But he is also a votary of the cult of Ayn Rand, an eccentric “radical for capitalism” thinker from the mid-twentieth century who had little use for the state and thought taxation was basically theft. Javid is apparently enchanted with the world view. So watch out for him.

The Boris Cabinet will be a Brexit cabinet – but also a Thatcherite and particularly virulent one. Some, like Fallon and Johnson himself, were Thatcherites first time round in the 1980s. Johnson, a journalist in those days, described how he “first stood in the physical presence of Margaret Thatcher when she swept past me in her twin-set, at the Madrid summit in 1989. Not only was she really rather beautiful, with a sort of glow about her. She was also very cross. Perhaps she looks beautiful when she is cross. ” Johnson was probably just a few glasses of rioja away from trying it on with the Iron Lady.

Do not underestimate the ideological fixation with Thatcher and Thatcherism among this bunch.

On Thursday, in fact, we will embark on what might be called Mrs Thatcher’s Fourth Term, the one she didn’t get the chance to win, after she was defenestrated by her own MPs back in 1990 – more tax cuts, more privatisation, more liberalisation of the economy, a smaller state, weaker worker rights.

Note, please, that the younger members of Team Boris are also fully certified neo-Thatcherites. Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab and Chis Skidmore, as well as Patel, were responsible for an extraordinary hard-right collection of essays in 2012, entitled Britannia Unleashed. Judge for yourself from one of the more notorious passages: “The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

And yet, as I say, Johnson may be up to something far more cunning than first appears with these stooges; organising his insurance policy and political alibis. For if – when – his Brexit strategy fails, this lot will have nowhere to hide.

The likes of Steve Baker, as a minister, will not be able to fulminate on the TV about Brexit betrayal. They will have themselves gone to Brussels and argued at first hand, and heard at first hand, Brussels’ obduracy. They cannot claim that it would all have been OK if it wasn’t a “Remainer cabinet”. The House of Commons has blocked prorogation and will again outlaw no-deal Brexit – and they cannot claim it could not happen under a “determined leader” and a tough, united Brexit cabinet team.

In which case, Johnson will be able to turn to them all around the cabinet table and say: “Well, gang, we did our best. We cannot do no deal because it is illegal. There are no options left but an election or a referendum. I never wanted this – and neither did you – but we must now take our case to the people. An election risks Corbyn, and we cannot hold one until Brexit is done. For Brexit to be done, we need a Final Say from the people. With positive energy we can still save the Brexit we love.”

And with that they will all bang the table, and Brexit will be dead, and Johnson will have at last extricated himself from his unwise choice in 2016.

One hopes.

Clever old Boris, eh?

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