When Harold Macmillan sacked seven Ministers in 1962 it was called the ‘night of the long knives’. On his first night as Prime Minister Boris Johnson sacked eleven, not counting the six who had resigned pre-emptively earlier in the day. His supporters will say a new broom sweeps clean but his critics will have other responses.
The new Cabinet is overwhelmingly drawn from the right wing of the Conservative party. Only Nicky Morgan (Culture Secretary) and Amber Rudd (Work and Pensions) are from the liberal wing of the party. The Parliamentary Party is deeply divided over Brexit in general and a ‘no-deal’ Brexit in particular. Nick Boles, who belonged to the liberal wing and now sits as an independent, described last night’s changes as “the hard right taking over. Liberal One Nation Conservatives have been ruthlessly culled and only a few neutered captives are kept for window dressing”.
Regardless of whether or not Morgan and Rudd can fairly be dismissed as window dressing, what matters is that Johnson’s appointments will not help to unite the Parliamentary party sufficiently to win votes in the House of Commons. Johnson is committed to the UK leaving the EU on 31st October, even if that means a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Philip Hammond, Greg Clark, David Gauke and Rory Stewart will all oppose a ‘no-deal’ exit, as will Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve and other One Nation Conservatives. The Government only has a majority of two, including the ten DUP MPs and that is expected to be reduced to one following the by-election in Brecon and Radnorshire on August 1st.
The European Union will be observing this and concluding that however bold Johnson’s demands for changes to the deal they agreed with Theresa May, he does not speak for a united nation. They will be aware of growing support north of the border for another independence referendum because in the 2016 referendum 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU. They will also be aware that a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic could also lead eventually to Irish re-unification. The more likely that is the less the EU will care about what happens to England (and Wales).
Some commentators suspect that Johnson is thinking of a General Election as soon after 31st October as possible, seeking a deal with the Brexit party once that party’s core aim has been delivered. They point to the commitments Johnson made in his first speech as Prime Minister. He pledged more funds for social care, more money for additional police officers, shortening waiting times to see a GP and more for the ‘left behind towns’. He will be conscious of divisions in the Labour Party and the growing dissatisfaction with Jeremy Corbyn. He wants an election before Corbyn quits and someone more popular takes over.
That said, Johnson’s critics are also pondering an early election, triggered by a vote of no confidence in his Government if he presses ahead with a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. However, he knows that this would not necessarily prevent a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. That can only be stopped if MPs vote to amend the Withdrawal Act. There is a potential majority for that in the House of Commons but they must first gain control of procedure to introduce and pass such an amendment in both Houses of Parliament. Johnson’s Ministerial team has been selected to minimise the possibility of that happening.
None of this will reach beyond Westminster to heal the divisions and unite the nation. A modest minority of MPs will be praying for that and seeking to act with grace towards those with whom they disagree. The rest of us need to do the same and pray for God’s mercy upon the four parts of the UK and that our politicians will seek to serve the national interests before their own and their party’s.
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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