The Great Purge: Boris Johnson Culls Cabinet to Make His Brexit Mark
Boris Johnson, former U.K. foreign secretary, delivers a speech during the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

The Great Purge: Boris Johnson Culls Cabinet to Make His Brexit Mark

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson executed a brutal clear-out of more than half of his predecessor’s top team, installing supporters in key roles as the new prime minister signaled his intent to deliver Brexit in 98 days.

Eighteen of the 29 ministers who sat in Theresa May’s cabinet on Wednesday morning were out of their jobs by the evening, including May herself. There were top jobs for Sajid Javid, named chancellor of the exchequer, Priti Patel, who becomes home secretary, and Dominic Raab, the new foreign secretary. Johnson will chair the first meeting of his top team Thursday morning before setting out his priorities in a statement to the House of Commons.

The Great Purge: Boris Johnson Culls Cabinet to Make His Brexit Mark

The purge sent the unequivocal message that Johnson wants to stamp his authority and change the direction of government. But although the new cabinet has a much more hard-Brexit flavor, the ejection of so many ministers is a risky move.

Johnson has now stacked the back benches of the Commons with Conservatives who owe him nothing and won’t support a no-deal Brexit, a policy that the new prime minister reiterated Wednesday remains on the table. If he is serious about no-deal, Johnson will have to find a way to sideline Parliament -- or change its make-up by calling an election.

One of his new appointees, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told ITV late Wednesday that while an election isn’t a government objective, "it’s impossible to rule out, looking at the Parliamentary arithmetic.”

Shortly after visiting Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II appointed him the U.K.’s new leader. Johnson’s convoy swept through the gates of Downing Street past a small crowd of pro- and anti-Brexit protesters, who chanted loudly as he delivered his first address outside the door to Number 10.

The Great Purge: Boris Johnson Culls Cabinet to Make His Brexit Mark

He promised to take Britain out of the European Union, declaring he’ll get the country ready for the “remote” prospect of a no-deal Brexit if it’s the only way to leave the bloc on time.

“The doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters -- they are going to get it wrong again,” Johnson said. “We are going to fulfill the repeated promises of Parliament to the people and come out of the EU on Oct. 31, no ifs or buts, and we will do a new deal, a better deal.”

The 55-year-old faces an enormous challenge to deliver on that promise, hemmed in by the clash between his own pledge to renegotiate the deal secured by May and the EU’s stance that the agreement is non-negotiable.

Johnson insisted the economy would be ready for a no-deal Brexit if necessary. “The ports will be ready, the banks will be ready, the factories will be ready, business will be ready,” he said. “The British people have had enough of waiting.

The Great Purge: Boris Johnson Culls Cabinet to Make His Brexit Mark

The premier has put his one-time nemesis, Michael Gove, in charge of those no-deal Brexit preparations, alongside his former aide Dominic Cummings. When the three men last worked together, on the 2016 Leave campaign, they turned the country upside down.

Now Cummings and Gove have the chance to deliver a revolution in the way the government functions -- something both men have long yearned for.

After his address, Johnson headed to Parliament, where in his office behind the chamber, away from the cameras, he conducted a swift succession of firings. One of the ministers told that his services were no longer required confided afterward that he’d felt sorry for Johnson having to give so much bad news so quickly after taking office.

Others had little time to feel bad for the man bringing their careers to a halt. Penny Mordaunt, Defence Secretary for less than three months, was stunned, according to a person familiar with her thinking. Johnson told her there was no room for her in the cabinet, without further explanation.

Jeremy Hunt, who Johnson defeated to become prime minister, had hoped stay on as foreign secretary. Just before 6 p.m., he walked out of Parliament with his wife, to say goodbye to his officials. In a tweet, Hunt said it was time for him to be “GOOD DAD” to his three kids.

Services no longer required:
  • Trade Secretary Liam Fox
  • Business Secretary Greg Clark
  • Education Secretary Damian Hinds
Resigned before they could be sacked:
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
  • May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington
  • Justice Secretary David Gauke
  • International Development Secretary Rory Stewart

Johnson then headed back to 10 Downing Street to begin giving the good news. Appointees to his cabinet would get the glory of walking past the cameras up to the front door.

The Great Purge: Boris Johnson Culls Cabinet to Make His Brexit Mark

Javid was in first, then Patel, then Raab. As well as being handed the foreign brief, the former Brexit secretary was appointed first secretary of state, a title normally reserved for the premier’s deputy. Among the few ministers staying on were Steve Barclay at his Brexit post, Matt Hancock with the Health brief and Amber Rudd for Pensions.

Liz Truss, who had heavily hinted she wanted to be made chancellor, was named trade secretary; Ben Wallace was put in charge of defense. Andrea Leadsom moved to the Business Department. Rees-Mogg, one of the figureheads of the Brexiteers, was made Leader of the House of Commons, charged with steering legislation through Parliament, and Johnson’s brother Jo will attend cabinet in a job straddling the business and education departments.

On the terrace of Parliament, overlooking the Thames, those who had left their jobs sipped beer and Pimms and accepted commiserations, while those hoping to be summoned for promotion clutched their phones.

In his speech in Downing Street, the new premier pledged to take “personal responsibility for the change I want to see.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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