Jack of all Cabinet Briefs, Master of None
As the professional standards of the executive have never been lower, what should we expect for the future?
photo by Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) (Flickr)
by Ninian J. Wilson
When one graduates, there’s a sense of impending doom, crippling uncertainty and personal incompetence. Surely I, this avocado addled millennial that the media derides and blames for all society’s woes, can’t become successful? In my moment of doubt, I turned on the radio to hear: ‘Boris Johnson was tricked into an 18-minute phone call with a man pretending to be the Armenian PM’ to which I thought ‘You know what? I think I’ll be fine’. It’s been a crazy year for ourselves and the Foreign Secretary, but if he can stay employed then the job market is going to love us.
Before looking forward into the Brexit dominated horizon, let’s look back. It’s mid September and the student body is laid out from Freshers week. Meanwhile, down in London, Boris Johnson has written an article in the The Daily Telegraph outlining his ‘vision for a bold, thriving Britain enabled by Brexit’. However, it wasn’t so much an article as it was two propped fingers to the government’s Brexit strategy, as he had fundamentally undermined his colleagues work and steadfast conventions of government. As it turned out, it wasn’t a firing offence but it did feel like last chance saloon. The uni equivalent would be like writing a Tab article aimed at your tutor claiming you could teach the course better and not getting kicked off the class. Ever the individual, Boris had marked himself as the unsackable rogue of the cabinet family.
Not too long later, the then First Secretary of State, Damian Green, got fired for inappropriately touching an aide on the knee and having pornography on his computer, which he lied about to colleagues. Despite being May’s right-hand man, he was duly given his P45. However, May did state that she ‘greatly appreciated’ his hard work and displayed something like remorse over his departure. I wonder if she lamented the disparity between Green and Johnson’s exploits.
In January, as we suffered the post-Christmas hang, Theresa May had her own headache to deal with. Mr Johnson seriously jeopardized his place in the government’s group chat as he publicly demanded £100 million more a week for the NHS, contrary to government policy and a matter outwith his cabinet brief. Clearly trying to save face from the Brexit bus-side promise, this was a move that was at best self-serving and at worst an attempt to destabilize the government. However, he had finally earned a reprimand. The Times reported that he was ‘humiliated’ in the subsequent cabinet meeting. I like to imagine it was Johnson being given one last chance before being kicked out of the WhatsApp group after one too many rogue moves. There’s only so many times you can snake your pals and get away with it, right?
Like any group of elite southerners’ worthy of the public eye, drama was never far away. Amber Rudd, May’s protégée, had to fall on her sword for her boss’ sake. As the most overtly racist government policy in living memory had confused illegal immigrants with legitimate residents of the Windrush generation, someone was going to have to take the fall. Ministerial Responsibility demanded it. As the policy had been conceived, implemented and maintained by Theresa May while she was Home Secretary, obviously it couldn’t be her. No, instead she would send her ever-loyal, order-following subordinate to the chop in her stead. To be fair, Rudd had ‘inadvertently misled the Home Affairs Select Committee [...] on the issue of illegal immigration’, despite a private letter published by The Guardian from Rudd to Downing Street showing that her mistruth was nothing if not advertent. Whether she was the real culprit, deserved or no, she had to go.
Somehow, Ministerial Responsibility could not demand the same of Johnson. As those who had roasted him in the cabinet fell in his wake, Boris has continued to make waves. Recently, he has gotten into logger-heads with No. 10 regarding Britain’s place in the customs union, which would limit his role as the forger of new trade deals all over the world. The overt manner in which he exhibits his disgruntlement with the government is beneath the standards of the auspicious role of Foreign Secretary. Regardless, he has refused to play by the rules or be cast aside for a more loyal candidate.
As a role model, I’m not sure what lessons to take from his tenure as Britain’s first diplomat. Should we perform the duties beset us in earnest servitude, while leaving ourselves open to the scythe of professional circumstance, or maintain a keen sense of self-preservation to survive in this dog eat dog world? I think a lot of us will have to learn the answer to that for ourselves as we graduate and enter the adult world.