Less male, less pale, but still stale—Boris Johnson’s new cabinet is full of old faces

Though some Tories hoped it would be time for fresh blood, Johnson has got the old band back together

July 26, 2019
Image composition: PA
Image composition: PA

Boris Johnson’s reshuffle was many things—it was brutal, dubbed “The Night of the Blond Knives”, a clear statement of intent, and a raspberry blown at those in the Conservative party who thought that he really was going to unite the party as Prime Minister.

What it wasn’t, however, was a great promotion of new talent. Westminster has many phrases for them: the new blood, the fresh meat, and other less carnal analogies. They are the MPs who were elected recently but not too recently; they haven’t made the headlines too often but those who know where to look have been keeping an eye on them for a little while. You’ve probably heard of some of them, from your Tom Tugendhats and Nusrat Ghanis to your Bim Afolamis.

The received wisdom is that the bright (not-so) young things cannot be left to bloom then wane on the backbenches. Even if they do not prove to be a thorn in their leader’s side, their untapped potential does nothing to help the party in the long run. On the flipside too, keeping the same old hands on the frontbench for too long often means losing the interest of the public.

We’ve been here before. Theresa May conducted her own clearing of the decks when she took power in 2016. To prove that times really were changing, she needed to look to the newer intakes and bring them up with her.

She didn’t. Instead, she brought the likes of Liam Fox, David Davis, Damian Green and David Lidington into the fold, all of whom had first seen the frontbench in the olden days of the pre-2010 opposition.

It was not well received, and the backbench grumbling grew and grew throughout her premiership—on that as well as everything else—and the consensus opinion eventually became that she needed to go so a new generation could take over.

The demand wasn’t unfair; if there is talent on your benches, you could do worse than use it. Some fresher faces even did try to have a go; Sam Gyimah is a notable example. Still, this clamour for fresh faces quieted down a bit once MPs started looking for her successor; times are tough, Corbyn is at the door, perhaps going for more experienced hands would be wiser.

The final four in the contest ended up being Johnson, Hunt, Gove and Javid, none of whom could reasonably be described as rising stars. Then, when it became obvious that there was no scenario in which Boris Johnson would not walk into No10, most of the names that swirled around for his Cabinet were similarly familiar.

In the latest iteration of a now ageing Conservative government, our characters are, among others: Priti Patel at the Home Office, Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Nicky Morgan at DCMS, Theresa Villiers at DEFRA, Andrea Leadsom at BEIS, Gavin Williamson at the DfE, and Grant Shapps at Transport.

All seven of them had previously been in the Cabinet, and will have been welcomed back by Matt Hancock, Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid, Julian Smith, Alun Cairns, and several other Cabinet ministers who are either switching posts or staying in their old ones.

Bona fide promotions, meanwhile, were few and far between. There is Ben Wallace, taking the MoD because Jeremy Hunt didn’t want it; James Cleverly, making the remarkable leap from deputy party chairman to party chairman, Alister Jack profiting from being one of the only Scottish Tories to be a hard Brexiteer, and a handful of others. The great revenge of the newer intakes it was not.

At risk of repeating the columns of that summer three years ago, this may well prove to be an issue. Boris Johnson was popular with Conservative MPs in the same way that a half-sinking raft may prove attractive to people stuck on an already sinking ship. If you squint enough, enthusiasm and desperation can often look similar.

They aren’t, however, and watching Johnson assemble a Cabinet of those with little to lose instead of a new generation with their own ambitions shows the limits of his project. Different as it may seem at first sight, it is not a team settling in for the long haul, but instead a collection of dwindling stars getting together for one last job. After all, most had been sacked, forgotten or made to resign in disgrace, and probably did not expect these Lazarus-like comebacks.

All that new blood, meanwhile, can comfort themselves with one near certainty; their next shot will come soon enough.