Boris Johnson’s Cabinet “Night of the Long Knives”

Photograph Source: Matt Brown CC BY 2.0

The US presidential cabinet and its UK prime-ministerial counterpart function in very different ways.

A presidential cabinet in the US is usually dominated by big donors and loyalists (the major ambassadorships are awarded on the same basis), with not too much work expected since the position is largely titular.

The slight exceptions in the US president’s cabinet tend to be the Treasury Secretary (always a former Wall Street banker, regardless of the party in power), Secretary of Defense (a Cheney- or Rumsfeld-like figure with ties to the military-industrial complex, or even a retired general), and Secretary of State/foreign minister (hopefully someone who speaks a language in addition to English— though John Kerry was regarded with suspicion because he is fluent in French).

An illustration of this state of affairs comes from bygone days, when Ronald Reagan, at a meeting of US mayors attended by some of his cabinet, mistook his cabinet’s only black member— “Silent Sam” Pierce, the scandal-ridden Secretary for Housing and Urban Development— for the mayor of Detroit. Silent Sam then had to inform Reagan he was a member of his cabinet and not the mayor of Detroit.

The senile Gipper had a reputation for falling asleep at cabinet meetings, so he probably would not have been aware if a shaven and trimmed Charles Manson sat at his cabinet table.

BoJo Johnson does not fall asleep at his cabinet meetings, but those who have been to them say he has a hard time remembering names, and that he free associates his way through these meetings rather than sticking to the agenda at hand. BoJo’s preference is for lame jokes, and the combined result of all this is vapidity when it comes to making crucial decisions.

In British politics, where cabinet ministers are expected to exercise a measure of leadership over their departments, it becomes clear, sooner than later, which ones are duds, as opposed to those who are somewhat up to the job.

BoJo has up-turned this rough and ready standard, for 2 reasons.

Firstly, as a well-recognized narcissist, he cannot bear to be shown-up by an underling of greater ability.

Secondly, someone as incompetent as BoJo needs a shield or fall-guy to draw attention away from his own inadequacies.

The result is a cabinet of third-raters (and that’s being generous in the case of some individuals), allowing BoJo to bask in his self-bestowed sense of superiority.

In addition, he’s been unwilling to sack cabinet members, because if he did, the question of his own uselessness would surely arise— sacking someone who matches BoJo’s ineptitude merely poses the question of why the boss didn’t get the chop as well?

But now that the Tories are falling behind Labour (led by the clueless fence-sitter Keir Starmer) in the opinion polls, BoJo is being prodded by his party members to do something, anything, about the deadbeats in his cabinet.

Major cabinet firings in the UK are usually described by the tabloids as “the night of the long knives”— the last real one was when Margaret Thatcher ditched everyone in her cabinet who wasn’t a true believer in her neoliberal cause. She derided them as “wets” when they were shown the door.

BoJo almost matched Thatcher this time.

He got rid of some of the more palpable ministerial failures, but having made personal loyalty, willingness to fight culture wars, and fidelity to Brexit his absolute criteria for elevation to the cabinet, BoJo’s only managed to replace one bunch of duds with another.

Out went the disastrous education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who, among other things, has made an absolute mess of the return-to-school policy while the Covid pandemic shows no sign of diminishing. The highlight of Williamson’s term as education secretary occurred when he threatened to sue a school if it didn’t stay open while Covid was surging, and then opened schools for one day before closing them because of the surge. One media commentator said Williamson was “a man too stupid even for a Boris Johnson cabinet”.

Also shown the door was the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, photographed sunning himself at a luxury beach resort in Crete while the shambolic US/UK withdrawal from Kabul was underway.

BoJo also dispensed with the housing secretary, Robert “Three Homes” Jenrick, renowned for bending rules on property development in return for donations. “Three Homes” is one of the more visible faces of Tory corruption and cronyism, and was fed to the Downing Street cat as BoJo sought to give the impression he wants to do something about Tory sleaze. Among other things, “Three Homes” illegally approved a planning application that saved the ex-porn king turned property developer (and Tory donor) “Dirty Des” Desmond £45m/$62.15m in taxes. With 3 properties to reside in, locals in Jenrick’s constituency say he is hardly seen there.

Another minister given the heave-ho was justice secretary Robert Buckland. Buckland, who opposed Brexit, was always an outlier in the cabinet, and it is widely believed he was sacked to make way for Raab, who has a legal background and needed to be given a consolation prize after being removed from the foreign secretaryship.

Their replacements caused much mirth on both mainstream and social media.

Taking up the position of education secretary is Baghdad-born Nadhim Zahawi, one of the Commons’ richest MPs, who made his fortune in petroleum, and was previously minister in charge of Covid vaccines. The Tories make him a regular choice for radio and TV appearances, where his forte is sounding thoughtful while saying virtually nothing. But the true nature of the beast was revealed when Zahawi was caught charging the cost of heating his stables to parliamentary expenses. Principals of schools with heating problems, of which there are many, should now write to Zahawi and remind him that their students deserve the same standard of heating as his horses. Doubtless, Zahawi will “sound thoughtful” when he replies to their communications.

“Three Homes” Jenrick was replaced as housing secretary by Michael Gove, a controversial figure with a known fondness for stimulative white powders. BoJo and the Govester have an uneasy relationship (Gove declared BoJo unfit to be prime minister in 2016 prior to launching his own party leadership challenge). However, the oleaginous Gove is a proven fixer who can do the “down and dirty” that BoJo, addicted to popularity among his other vices, needs badly at this point but can’t undertake himself.

“Three Homes”, with his planning largesse on behalf of developers (in essence giving them a “right to build” charter), was starting to alienate NIMBY owners of expensive properties in long-held Tory seats, who don’t want cookie-cutter housing projects appearing on their doorsteps. The shrewd Govester promptly did BoJo’s job for him, and ditched Jenrick’s build-where-you-want planning regulations.

Reports have it that BoJo supported Jenrick’s plans for opening up more space for housing construction, until their potential electoral costs for the Tories manifested themselves in the leafy commuter belt around London. BoJo then made one of his numerous about-turns, and Gove the fixer knows what he has to do for now. His own long knife will wait its turn.

Two other BoJo cabinet promotions provided mirthful fodder for social media.

Liz “Thicky Lizzy” Truss, an Ayn Randian figure who was anti-Brexit until she realized this would sink her career as a Tory politician (BoJo had the same realization), was in charge of striking post-Brexit trade deals before her elevation to foreign secretary.

Critics say her “new” deals involve mere cutting and pasting of old deals with some up-to-date verbiage thrown in.

“Thicky Lizzy” is famous for her foot-in-mouth gaffes, of which the following are a sample:

+ “Too many nurseries are filled with toddlers running around with no sense of purpose” (when she was childcare secretary);

+ “Britain importing two thirds of its cheese is a disgrace”;

+ “While we were taught about racism and sexism, there was too little time spent making sure everyone could read and write. These ideas have their roots in postmodernist philosophy – pioneered by Foucault – that puts societal power structures and labels ahead of individuals and their endeavours. In this school of thought, there is no space for evidence, as there is no objective view – truth and morality are all relative” (parts of this ridiculous speech were taken down from the government website);

+ “I was at Pentonville [prison] last week. They’ve now got patrol dogs who are barking, which helps deter drones”;

+ “Our flood defences worked really well right up to the point at which they failed”.

BoJo’s other surprising promotion was making Nadine “Mad Nad” Dorries culture secretary. Her main claim to fame was appearing on a reality tv show for celebrities, taking a month-long hiatus from her parliamentary duties to do so, where she ate an ostrich’s anus.

“Mad Nad” has written 3 novels, the first of which was called the “worst” novel the reviewer had read in ten years in the rightwing newspaper The Telegraph. We have to wonder what the New Left Review would have said had it condescended to review her trashy novel?

Dorries is also a match for Liz Truss when it comes to foot-in-mouth remarks:

+ “I think Sarah Palin is amazing. I totally admire her”;

+ “The last time we were at war, it was with our ‘neighbours’ and it was America who lost lives in our defence” (Dorries is apparently clueless about the last time the UK had actually been to war);

+ “I’ve never met a gay couple that wanted to marry”;

+ “My blog is 70% fiction and 30% fact. It is written as a tool to enable my constituents to know me better and to reassure them of my commitment to Mid Bedfordshire. I rely heavily on poetic licence and frequently replace one place name/event/fact with another”;

+ “’Trident is not a weapon of mass destruction” (the UK’s submarine-launched nuke has a yield 8 times the bomb dropped on Hiroshima).

Anyone who thinks the US has a monopoly in the western world on crackpot politicians — such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, Ted Cruz, Louie Gohmert, Michelle Bachmann– needs to do a serious rethink.

Some of today’s Ukanian Tory cabinet-members will match any Republican headbanger politician inch for inch.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.