Much of the reaction to Sajid Javid’s departure yesterday, alongside the sacking of several other Cabinet ministers, would have you believe that it is a very big deal.
‘Moderate reshuffle morphs into major crisis,’ said Sky News political editor Beth Rigby. Rory Stewart tweeted out a picture of Theresa May’s Cabinet from the middle of last year, with the chiding question: “How many are still in the Cabinet today?” (The answer, by the way, is only about half a dozen out of more than 30.) Jon Sopel on the Today programme this morning said Javid’s replacement, Rishi Sunak, was in a very powerful position because the Prime Minister could not afford to lose another Chancellor. Really? Says who?
None of these experienced observers of the political scene appear to realise that the rules of the game have changed. Across the western world, we are no longer in the era of a group of “Big Beasts” jointly presiding over politics. Instead it’s the time of the singular King of the Jungle in whom the electorate has invested its hopes.
These are not the days of Harold Wilson and his two-day Cabinet meetings, at which a series of major political figures would all be given their say. And nor is it a repeat of John Major’s premiership, when a weak PM was getting dragged every which way by colleagues with stronger personalities than he.
In Britain, there is no front-rank politician other than Boris Johnson who has such a significant following. Jeremy Corbyn is on his way out. All his possible replacements are low-wattage figures. On the Conservative side, the election was all about the appeal of Boris. The mandate the Conservative party received was an intensely personal one. The old idea of a PM being merely “primus inter pares” (first among equals) has never been more out of date.
So let me tell you the brutal truth about the departure of Sajid Javid and the others: no-one cares. Not literally no-one of course. Mr Javid clearly cares. Mrs Javid presumably does too. So do the aforementioned luminaries and so does Westminster. But out in the real world? Not so much.
All this was surely proven when Johnson kicked a load of pro-EU ex-ministers out of the parliamentary Conservative party before the election. The Bubble predicted this would be seen as a “lurch to the Right”. Voters, we were told, would be beside themselves with grief that such figures as “Winston Churchill’s grandson” and “the Father of the House” were no longer Tory MPs. In fact, the episode served merely to burnish Johnson’s pro-Brexit credentials in the eyes of the electorate.
So Rory Stewart is exactly wrong if he seeks to imply that the exit of Javid and Cox and Smith (“not Smith as well?” they cried!) is going to worry the electorate any more than did the exit of Rudd and Gauke and Hammond and Lidington and Hunt and, yes, Stewart too.
And it is not only ordinary voters who are supremely unperturbed (in fact many will positively approve of the PM treating these politicians so ruthlessly). The financial markets get it too. Far from there being a run on Sterling, it actually rose on news of Javid’s exit.
And by the way, Sopel is wrong too. The changes implemented yesterday – effectively the restoration of the Prime Minister in substance as First Lord of the Treasury – mean that Johnson can indeed afford to lose another chancellor and another one after that if he wishes, so long as the direction of policy is clear and his own grip not in doubt.
So what has been interpreted as a major crisis is in fact a minor squall. The waters will close over the Javid affair very swiftly. Johnson and his sidekick Dominic Cummings – who is, by turns, written up as a broken man and an all-powerful Svengali – understand the fortunes of the Conservative party are entirely predicated on the Prime Minister delivering on his big promises: leaving the Brexit transition in good shape on December 31, getting the NHS into a better condition, delivering a meaningful law and order crackdown and improving life in the former “red wall” seats that turned Tory in December.
After the long Brexit logjam, many normal people are actively seeking to tune out from politics for a while. They’ve given Boris Johnson a clear mandate and are likely to next check-in a couple of years from now to see how he’s been getting on. Hyperventilation about Javid’s resignation is simply not going to be heard in the public bar of the Dog & Duck.