In the brouhaha surrounding Sajid Javid picking up his abacus and going home, the media has paid much less attention to what the Sorcerer of No 10 and his Apprentice were doing that triggered it. Post-December 12th, a reshuffle was always on the cards. Some pundits even predicted the idea that a whopping majority of 80 relaxed the need for orthodoxy in building a broader church within Cabinet.
That did not turn out to be the case. Even loyal leavers like Andrea Ledsome and Esther McVey both got their jotters—the former for having a mind of her own; the latter for not showing enough leadership, as in response to last weekend’s floods in Calder Valley. More significant than either was the removal of Julian Smith from Northern Ireland. This was both unexpected and undeserved. Not only had be brought a fractious Assembly back to life after three years of dissolution, but significant politicians from Arlene Foster to the Taoiseach had good words to say about his efficacy.
He was removed for agreeing that investigations into deaths caused during the Troubles could be made. This did not sit well with backwoods Tories, who object to former soldiers being put on trial after half a century. This may have deeper long-term effects than the loss of a Chancellor.
The media have also been conveying the plausible story that effectively merging No10 and No 11 makes sense. Chancellors and Prime Ministers must get along—Osborne did with Cameron and Brown did with Blair. Examples of poor teamwork are Hammond with May or Howe with Thatcher. These did cause friction (both public and private). But there is an equally cogent argument that a strong Chancellor is necessary to balance the spending tendencies of government.
Were this all, uneasiness at such centralisation might be unfounded. 21st © communications facilitates a web of unity, leading to clarity. This may seem desirable. But consider who sits at the centre of such a web: Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, (a.k.a. Boris & The Dominator). The former hides a robust ego and unswerving ambition under a cloak of affable buffoonery. The latter is on record as early as 2014 that the Treasury must be brought under control; more recently that all Cabinet special advisers (SPADs) become subservient to him as Chief of Staff, just as Ministers are to the PM. This will be much more than a smoothing out of workings between No11 and No 10. The reshuffle has set the tome.
You need look no farther than our ‘Special Relationship’ to find the model on which such an approach is being built. America has long been boastfully proud of its Constitution. Its democratic lock derives from a balance of power among three elements: Executive (= President), Legislature (= Congress); Judiciary (= Supreme Court). While everyone behaved themselves within the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution, all went well for over 200 years. Only in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich and frustrated Republicans tore up etiquette and went for Clinton’s jugular did flaws start to show..
Over the last three years. America’s President has taken his powerful jalopy out on the highway and put his foot down. Prior to Trump, partisanship was downplayed by predecessors. But Trump’s partisanship is of a new kind: it’s personal. His success in dropping taxes and boosting the economy has thirled the Republican party to his personal cause. By behaving like the big wheel mogul he sees himself as, he has flat-footed conventional political opposition. He has no scruples about using all levers under his control to further personal interests. The failed impeachment shows Legislature to be disabled as a check on his power. And, had that impeachment been approved, it would have been struck down by the Supreme Court, to which Trump has appointed right-wing judges unlikely to censure him.
This behaviour is consistent and disturbing. The Miller report condemning Trump’s actions was ignored and Miller subjected to a Twitter lambasting by the President himself. Various Trump appointees have fallen like flies by either daring to contradict him or resigning in frustration. The latest is the Attorney General William P. Barr (in post for a year) who has complained in public, along with the four judges involved, that Trump has demanded the 9-year sentence recommended for a friend of his be reduced.
More disturbing than Cabinet turnover is US spending. The voodoo economics of tax curs for the rich paying for themselves has not come to pass. US national debt has climbed to $22 trillion (over £50,000 for every American). The UK’s massive £2 trillion debt is half that per person. Unlike the deficits of the mid-20th century, the money is not being invested in infrastructure like highways and dams.
Boris and The Dominator may not have presidential powers, but they are taking the unwritten—and therefore more amenable—British constitution that way. And who’s to stop them? An inexperienced Chancellor? SPADs from all departments subject to the Chief of Staff ? Labour leader contenders more focussed on transgender than transport? The temptation to mimic an autocratic White House beckons. Centralisation reduces disputes and imposes speedy decision-making. And there lie serious dangers. It goes beyond a pliant Treasury allowing the government to spend like drunken sailors and Just ask the Germans or the Russians about their last-century experiences with centralisation.
Ironically, the one hope of salvation from Boris and The Dominator’s Trump adulation may be the backwoodsmen of the Tory party, referred to above. They may have kept quiet so as not to frighten the voters during the election. But now they have Brexit under their belt, they are gathering their pitchforks and re-lighting their torches to take on HS2 and figuratively re-deploy steam gunboats in the Channel to see off Johnny Foreigner. Cue Huawei’s impudent bid to provide 5G or CMCC cheek in undercutting rail-building barons. A dozen bolshie Tory backbenchers could be our best defence against rampant Tumpian triumphalism.