Keep your friends close, but your enemies abroad

This first appeared on Not Enough Champagne.

For someone who has become Prime Minister because she was seen as a safe pair of hands, Theresa May has made an incredibly bold start to her Premiership.

May has become Prime Minister in large part because she has not done or said anything very interesting this year. In the referendum campaign, she was conspicuous by her absence. In the leadership campaign, May just sat at home whilst her opponents spontaneously combusted. The anti-Francis Urqhart, in other words.

That has all changed now. What to make of these hectic two days? We’ve seen new departments of state created, others abolished entirely, and political careers rise from the dead. Theresa May made a victory speech outside Downing Street which in a different universe could have been given by Ed Miliband a year ago, but for one crucial aspect. More on that later.

The speech suggested that May, correctly, knows that the referendum result was about more than the European Union. As Steve has suggested on this podcast, in many ways Brexit was a vote against the status quo. Consequently, there could be some very interesting reforms in the next few years. The main policy commitment given in the only leadership campaign speech Theresa May gave was to put workers on company boards. If Jeremy Corbyn had suggested it, the Tory press would have said it was the mad idea of a dangerous communist. (Of course, Corbyn didn’t suggest it, because he doesn’t have any policies.) It’ll be interesting to see whether this policy makes it to law, because it could be a jolly good idea.

Politically, then, Theresa May is able to come in and plant her tanks firmly on the centre ground Labour is retreating from. Especially now Philip Hammond appears to be signalling an end to Osborne’s insane idea of committing to a budget surplus by 2020. The Labour Party would be quaking in its boots, were it not currently tearing itself apart.

I said that Theresa May’s speech could have been given by Ed Miliband, but for one crucial aspect. That aspect is the aftermath of Brexit. Here, she has made the Brexit campaigners clean up their own mess. All the key foreign policy posts in the cabinet – Brexit, International Trade, Development and of course BoJo himself – are taken by Leave campaigners.

It means that Brexit will happen. I have speculated on previous podcasts whether Brexit could be kicked into the long grass. The reshuffle shows that that was possibly just wishful thinking. David Davies has indicated that although the triggering of Article 50 will be delayed, it will probably happen later in the year. Let’s wait for concrete plans to be put forward before we speculate on that.

Leaving foreign affairs to the Brexiters could also turn out to be a masterful piece of party management. I am in two minds as to whether appointing Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary is a stroke of genius, or an example of being too clever-by-half out of the Michael Gove/George Osborne playbook. Leaving Boris on the back benches to plot against May was perhaps too risky an option, especially with many big beasts such as Osborne and Gove already sacked. Where better for him then jetting around embassies, trying to explain his poetry? As my partner in propaganda pithily summarised:

Ceremonial position where he can bombastically wave flag & be a showman.Only role he can do without screwing it up

I would certainly much rather Boris at the Foreign Office, where the main stuff has gone to the PM and the Brexit ministers anyway, then at Health or Education.

And yet. Look at the reaction from across the world. Look at the poor journalists dredging up every single offensive thing Boris has every said about a foreigner. Surely there was a better candidate amongst the 330 Tory MPs for Foreign Secretary? I think I’d choose Rory Stewart, but that’s probably why I’ll never be Prime Minister.

This is a very bold cabinet and I am genuinely intrigued as to whether the sweeping reforms promised by May will amount to anything. Whether they do probably needs some careful party management from a rookie chief whip. The Tories have a majority of six, and there are nine sacked or resigned former Cabinet Ministers with a grudge. Over the past couple of weeks the Tories have shown a ruthless thirst for government by uniting quickly round Theresa May to get her into Downing Street. If they continue to display that ruthlessness in government, Labour could be destroyed.

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