Boris Johnson seems out to break records, which is one way of gaining a place in history.
First, by way of saying hello, our new PM sacked 17 ministers, with six more jumping before being pushed, which is the biggest cull ever this side of a busy abattoir.
Then he elevated five non-white MPs to top cabinet positions, which is more than all the previous PMs put together managed to do in our entire political history. The number of women in the cabinet is also close to the all-time highest.
The general impression is that Johnson has replaced Remainers with Leavers, but that’s not quite true. In fact, the balance between the two groups isn’t dramatically different from May’s cabinet, especially if we look beyond the top three jobs.
Moreover, among those Johnson sacked one finds quite a few consistent and principled Leavers, such as Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt, whose thighs have been known to give me most un-Christian thoughts.
Now Boris Johnson is many things, not all of them commendable, but stupid he isn’t. Realising this ought to mitigate our amazement at the broad sweep of yesterday’s hatchet job.
Most commentators assume that the new cabinet has been put together to fight for Brexit. That may be so some time down the road, but it can’t be the immediate objective.
If it were, the PM would have thought ten times before putting on the back benches two dozen high-powered MPs with raw personal grievances against him. After all, the Tory majority is paper-thin as it is, or rather, if one counts the likely turncoats, non-existent.
Both Labour and LibDems have threatened a vote of no confidence, and I’m not sure the numbers stack up in favour of the new PM. Under such circumstances, creating two dozen new enemies within his own party is stupid, which we’ve agreed Boris Johnson isn’t.
Moreover, barring the possibility of the PM proroguing parliament to achieve a no-deal Brexit, by now it should be reasonably clear that the MPs will block any deal put before them.
Most will do so because they want to stay in the EU; others, because they don’t think any deal is good enough; still others, because they dislike Boris – and we shouldn’t underestimate the role of personal animosity in politics.
Yesterday’s cull beefed up all three groups, which is inexplicable. Or rather it would be inexplicable if going for the immediate Brexit jugular were topmost on Boris’s mind. But it clearly isn’t.
Deal or no deal, this parliament will block Brexit, pure and simple. And proroguing it would create a constitutional crisis of Cromwellian proportions, with no Col. Pride anywhere in evidence.
Yet nothing in politics is pure and little is simple. Johnson knows all this – and yet he has climbed too far out on the limb to backtrack now. Either Britain leaves the EU by 31 October or Boris leaves politics – the situation is unshakably binary.
The solution to his conundrum can be shown with a little orthographic trick: italicising the modifier in ‘this parliament’. True, this parliament will block Brexit, thereby putting an end to Johnson’s political career.
That’s why this Parliament has to be replaced with another, more amenable one. And that’s why this cabinet has been selected to fight a snap general election.
Hence their allegiance to Brexit is secondary to their allegiance to Boris: this cabinet has been chosen mainly on the basis of its personal loyalty and ability to appeal to a broad electorate.
This explains its demographics: giving the second most important government job to a chap who takes the parliamentary oath on the Koran won’t impress the EU, quite the opposite. But the hope is that it may impress a large swathe of voters who traditionally opt for Labour or LibDems.
If Boris manages to get a parliament reflecting the ideological makeup of his cabinet, he’ll acquire a gun to take to a knife fight with the EU. If he doesn’t, and either Labour or LibDems form the next government, that spells the end of Boris, his party and – much as I hate to be a doomsayer – Britain, as we know and love her.
Hence we may well be looking at one of the greatest constitutional gambles in British history, quite on a par with Churchill’s commitment to fight Hitler to the death, if with less sanguinary consequences. And Churchill is Johnson’s idol.
I wish our new PM all the luck in the world because he’s going to need it. Too many things could go wrong for him: he may lose the snap election to either Labour or LibDems or conceivably their coalition or, even if he manages to win with an increased majority, he may still not get a Leaver parliament.
Even more things could go wrong for Britain, starting with the unmitigated and probably irreversible catastrophe of a Corbyn government, but not ending there. For, even if the dice roll Johnson’s way, he may still prove to be the same louche, unprincipled weathervane PM as he has been throughout his political career.
Yet, answering the PM’s call to unbridled optimism, one must hope he’ll grow into the job and prove to be the statesman Downing Street has lacked since 1990. Stranger things have happened, although not many of them.