When Theresa May named her first Cabinet in July 2016 it included Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. May did not do this because she wanted to. Her dislike of Johnson and his bombastic style was well-known. However, by choosing to include him in her Cabinet she had the chance to keep him under control – at least that was the theory!
When appointed to the Cabinet, Government Ministers are expected to abide by a doctrine of Collective Responsibility. This doctrine dictates that even if they disagree with Government policy in private, in public they support it – giving at least the impression, therefore, that the Government is a united force. Whilst in the Cabinet Boris tested the doctrine on a number of occasions including saying that the UK should spend more on the NHS, even though was no part of his ministerial brief and publishing an article that appeared critical of Theresa May’s Brexit Plans.
On July 9th 2018 Boris Johnson resigned from the Cabinet. He did so citing the fact that he could not agree with Theresa May’s Chequers Plan, the latest plan of the Government for the negotiation of Brexit.
Since resigning, Boris has been able to take broadsides at the Government’s policy, particularly over Brexit. He has also managed to keep himself firmly on the news agenda, notably by stating in an article that women wearing the Burka looked like a letterbox. However, on Monday he launched his biggest attack yet on the Government. In the Daily Telegraph Johnson took a huge swipe at the Government’s Brexit policy. In particular he claimed that:
- That the Chequers Plan means “disaster” for Britain
- The UK will get “diddly squat” from Theresa May’s plans
- The EU had been using trickery in their negotiations
Although Boris Johnson was clearly a divisive figure in Cabinet, the adage of ‘keep your
friends close and your enemies closer’ comes to mind. Whilst in the Cabinet there were limits on what he could say. Outside of Cabinet, there are not. There are many in the Conservative Party who would rather see Boris sitting in Number 10 Downing Street than Theresa May. There is no doubt that Boris Johnson is setting himself up as an alternative to Theresa May when she, seemingly inevitably, falls from power.
This is far from the first time that such a situation has arisen. Another example occurred in the Government of Margaret Thatcher. Michael Heseltine was flamboyant and dynamic, he was a very different character from Maragaret Thatcher and represented a different, a more liberal, faction of the party.
Heseltine joined the Cabinet in 1983 as Secretary of State for Defence. He was seen as a rising star in the party, but was forced to resign over the Westland Affair in 1986 when it emerged that he has sought to undermine the decision of the Cabinet by continuing to negotiate a new buyer for British Helicopter firm, Westland, despite an agreement already being reached with an American consortium.
Heseltine returned to the Conservative backbenches and, where he saw it necessary, spoke out against Government policy. In particular, he was a vocal critic of the Poll Tax, an issue that would be extremely damaging to Margaret Thatcher. There is no doubt, that Heseltine could have returned to the Cabinet in a more junior capacity if the Prime Minister wished to offer him a role, however, she decided against it.
In 1990 Heseltine was urged to challenge Thatcher for the leadership of the party. On the 14th November Heseltine claimed that he had the support of up to 100 Conservative MPs and announced he would stand in a leadership election against Thatcher. The result of the election was 54.8% for Thatcher and 40.9% for Heseltine. However, despite Thatcher winning, she did not reach the 15% gap needed under Conservative Party rules. The contest therefore went onto a Second Ballot.
At this stage, Thatcher’s Cabinet stepped in. A number of members met with her and urged her not to stand, and as a result, Thatcher withdrew from the contest and left Downing Street after 11 years as Prime Minister.
John Major went on to defeat Michael Heseltine in the Second Ballot and was Prime Minister from 1992-1997. Yet, it is worth considering that all of this may have been avoided, or at least delayed, had Margaret Thatcher looked to keep Heseltine on the inside, within the Cabinet, rather than outside, on the backbenches. Only time will tell if Boris Johnson will have the same effect on Theresa May.