Sunday, 19 September 2021

Dead Wood and Crooked Timbers

Now the dust has settled and the most excitable media commentary is out of the way, what can be said of Boris Johnson's reshuffle? On one level, not a lot. The government has overseen 150,000 Covid deaths is bent on pushing the totals higher. The same war on woke rubbish hasn't gone away, nor has the determination to shield the wealthy. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Among the big ticket items was the bumping of Gavin Williamson down to the backbenches. Rumour has it there will be a knighthood in the post to ease his bruises, and knowing Williamson is the worst vainglorious place seeker he's going to insist on the "Sir" at every conceivable function. Up to and including dealings with his kids. As for offences committed during his time in office, Williamson distinguished himself with singular incompetence and arrogance and attracted the brickbats for it, which does provide the Prime Minister some service. The debacle of Covid in schools is the education secretary's fault and not Boris Johnson's responsibility, for instance. But there's only so much punishment such a figure can soak up before the flood of anger swamps the Prime Minister. Williamson was at saturation point and had to go. Moving Nadhim Zahawi indicates that Johnson has a similar role in mind for him. Zahawi has become a relatively familiar government face during the pandemic, but apart from that he's not well known among the public. On the surface more reasonable and more popular in Westminster than his predecessor, it's worth remembering his "reasonableness" extends to backing Johnson from the beginning, and claiming for heating his nags' stables on MP's expenses. A more emollient tone is the most that can be expected, and for his fans on the centre left and columnist land, that will be enough.

The other big casualty was the appalling Dominic Raab. Like Williamson, by the time Johnson shuffled him out of the foreign secretary role he was resembling a punch bag with stuffing spilling everywhere. His incompetence, like that of his boss, received the full glare of publicity following the disintegration of the British position in Afghanistan. And here, Raab performed the fall guy role brilliantly. At a rate of knots, the media spotlight shifted from the humiliation inflicted on the Western allies to the drama of the Pen Farthing animal airlift, and whether Raab picked up the phone to his outgoing counterpart in Kabul or not. A masterpiece of misdirection, having it consume the foreign secretary was a price Johnson was happy to pay. And with the energy bar depleted, he's been demoted - albeit disguised as a promotion - by his appointment as justice secretary, with the deputy PM dunce cap added to spare his blushes. Raab himself is as stupid as he is unsuited as a parliamentarian, let alone any office of government, but Westminster watchers and their appreciation of its history know that the last time the deputy honorific was doled out to ease a demotion - the blessed Margaret's "retirement" of Geoffrey Howe - the worm turned with devastating effect when the time was right. History could well repeat itself, but as we're dealing with Dominic Raab here it's unlikely to be anything other than farce. Moving up Liz Truss into Raab's boots is, from a Tory party point of view, a wise move. She's popular with the wider party and is seen as a "doer" thanks to her modest clutch of Brexit trade deals. Just don't ask about the abandonment of greenhouse standards in the Australian deal.

Meanwhile the actual deputy PM, Michael Gove, was awarded a super department. As politically awful Gove is he has proven himself a competent administrator, which is something of a rarity among Johnson's cabinet of prima donnas and failures. Having carried the Johnson operation on the business side of things, this most obsequious of satraps is in receipt of a mega office combining housing and local government with the official, no one's making this up, title of 'the Department of Levelling Up. As firm believers of 'if you repeat a lie enough the punters will believe it', the suspicion is we're going to see some "radical" thinking applied to housing, given the reputation as a reformer/wrecker Gove acquired when he was at education. When he held the shadow brief under Dave, Gove was interested in increasing the housing supply. But radical action in this direction, like a right to buy for private tenants, for example, is highly unlikely given the Tory dependence on propertied interests.

Naturally, neither Priti Patel nor Rishi Sunak were in any danger. As heirs apparent, getting shot of either would have riled up their followings on the backbenches. But what was entirely predictable was the elevation of the likes of Nadine Dorries and Kemi Badenoch. Dorries finds herself as culture secretary not because of her expanding library of romantic novels (readily available in a charity shop near you), but precisely because she's pig ignorant. Coming to notice as a "colourful" character after 2005 and best known for her stint in the celebrity jungle, Dorries's litany of "gaffes" and outright bullshit is perfect for upsetting liberal sensitivities and acting as a lightning rod for "elite" concerns with things like inconveniently situated listed structures. The same is true of Badenoch. Appointed equalities minister, the unearthing of homophobic and transphobic comments from three years ago are unsurprising. Johnson appointed her in the full knowledge of her views, and is fully aware past and future outrages would, in his view, play well in firming up the Conservative vote ahead of the next election. In true Tory form, that she will give succour to bigotry and make life a misery for precarious and targeted minorities counts for nothing.

Meet the new government, same as the old government. Johnson has cleared out the dead wood, firmed up his position by promoting new meat shields, and has signalled that it's business as usual as far as he's concerned. And with an opposition going nowhere fast, except inwards, the sad, awful truth is he's likely to get away with it.

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1 comment:

  1. We have a government that doesn't have a clue about governing and an opposition that doesn't have a clue about opposing.


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