19 November 2020
Changing the Guard
A game of three halves.
By John Watson
There were not intended to be three halves at all. In the beginning, in those days last year when the electorate returned Boris to power, there were two tasks which it expected him to perform. The first was to deliver Brexit, stand up to the continentals and do, or not do, the best available deal with them. The second was to revitalise the North of England, to reset British politics, and to create wealth in those parts which other governments had not reached. Whether it is right to characterise these two tasks as “halves” of the government programme is moot but clearly they were distinct and required quite different skills. Negotiating Brexit is all about holding a position and persuading the European Union that you are prepared to go to the wire of “no deal” rather than change it, a task for square jaws, poker faces and that form of pig-headed obstinacy which every negotiator dreads seeing on the other side of the table. Resetting the country requires softer skills, imagination, a consensual approach, a listening ear.
Because the two halves require different skills, they also require different teams and Boris must have counted himself lucky that there was a clear order to them. The first job was to “get Brexit done” so that his initial cabinet had to be populated with supporters for Leave, the less compromising the better. Of course one would not actually trust the negotiation to the likes of Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, the real work would be done by Gove, Frost et al, but the backdrop of true believers in the high offices of state would add weight to our negotiating position. That is what they were put there for.
The plan must always have been that once Brexit was done the team would change to one equipped for the work of resetting the country. No room then for the unimaginative, doctrinaire and obstinate. It would be the time of the technocrats and visionaries – Greg Clark, perhaps, or even Jeremy Hunt. Not everyone would change – Michael Gove would remain as valuable to the delivery of reform as he is to the negotiation of Brexit – and Boris presumably saw himself as indispensable to both agendas. Still, he must have planned a changing of the guard when the Brexit transition period came to an end so the timing of that event became crucial. Regardless of what comes out of the Brexit negotiations, be it a hard, a soft or no deal, many people are going to be disappointed and there will be a painful period during which the government will be blamed for unrealised expectations before it can begin to rebuild its political capital with its programmes for reform and the North. One can see why the government would want to move through this period well before the next election and why it has always stood resolutely against any slowing of the Brexit process.
Anyway, a major reshuffle and a changing of the guard at Downing Street must have been expected at the end of this year and that is no doubt why Dominic Cummings floated it as a time for his own departure as long ago as last January.
The trouble is that government has not turned out to be a game of two halves at all but a third half, in the shape of the pandemic, came bounding over the hill in February and hijacked the attention of the political classes. Surprises are not an unusual thing in politics. Harold Macmillan, when asked what difficulties he feared most, replied “events, dear boy, events” and Pitt the Younger saw his carefully planned schemes for paying off the national debt destroyed by an unexpected war with France. The pandemic caught the Government amidships and force it to spend most of its time and energy in dealing with an emergency for which its members were not particularly well-equipped.
But the fact that the pandemic has become the centre of political activity does not mean that the original two halves, and the transition between them, have lost their importance. Come the next election the pandemic and Brexit will hopefully be well behind us and the Tories will be judged on the success of their policies for reviving the economy and resetting the country. If they are not to be caught empty-handed, work on putting these policies in place needs to begin now. Accordingly, it is time for changes both in the Cabinet and in the team at number 10 as the hard Brexiteers are replaced by more consensual folk or decide that, their work being completed, it is time to move on. Be ready then to see the exit of Cummings and Cain being followed by wholesale revision of the ministerial team.
Of course the exit of Cummings and Cain has not been smooth but it wouldn’t be, would it? However much he may have said in January that he expected to depart at the end of the year, retirement is not easy for a powerful adviser like Cummings so there was always likely to be, or at least to seem to be, some sort of punch-up. Anyway, that was what the press had to say to make a story of it and it is perhaps no surprise that commentators are split between those who regard it as a good thing, liberating Johnson’s inner liberalism, and those who think it a bad thing, removing advisers who have stiffened his spine. Here perhaps the Prime Minister has been a little lucky in his timing because his own encounter with the coronavirus clearly weakened him and three months ago the thought of his governing without Cummings would have been alarming. But his performances at recent press conferences have been far better and more competent than their predecessors, indicating a regathering of strength. Will Boris be able to give his new colleagues the leadership needed to take forward his ideas for reform? Only time will tell that but one thing is certain. The time for him to start putting them into effect is now.