They say keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Sometimes attributed to Machiavelli, it’s a well-tried defensive manoeuvre that’s been adopted by politicians for as long as they’ve existed, but one that looks to be taken away as an option for Boris Johnson before he’s even passed the threshold of No10.
We’ve already seen over the last few days a trickle of ministerial resignations, with other Cabinet heavyweights indicating they’ll be voluntarily stepping aside before the keys are handed over later today. In some instances, like that of Sir Alan Duncan and Philip Hammond, it’s very much a case of jump before pushed. In others, like Rory Stewart and David Gauke – who represent the moderate, socially liberal wing of the Tory Party – Boris’ ascension brings an irreconcilable difference of opinion on Brexit, and in particular, the dangers of a no-deal departure.
A mass overhaul of the top is not uncommon during such transitions. Put out to pasture, it has been common for the discarded old guard to slink off into obscurity until the next general election, picking up a few cushty non-executive roles in the process. But on this occasion, there will be no period of grace for the incumbent. With so much at stake, both for the country, and also in terms of the future direction of the Conservative Party, those returning to the backbenches will be keen to make their voices heard.
These are experienced MPs, some of whom have been on the frontbench, either in government or opposition, continuously for over twenty years. They are adept political operators who know their way around the system. Impervious to the charm and, at times, threats of the party whips, they will be looking to flex their muscles given their rediscovered freedom on the backbenches. For Boris Johnson, it’s a headache of the highest order in waiting.
Ken Clarke recently commented at a press gallery lunch that in recent years the trend whereby sacked ministers choose not to stay on as constituency MPs has led to a dearth of experience in the Commons. He’s absolutely right, but those vacating ministerial office today have already made clear that they plan to go nowhere. Regardless of political allegiance, the experience and know-how they will bring can only be a good thing for Parliament and the scrutiny process.
The working majority of two Johnson inherits poses a huge threat to the longevity of his premiership. Keeping in check a beefed-up, reinvigorated Tory backbench will be his greatest and most pressing challenge.