“The washing of the spears,” was the Zulu term for victory in battle. The latest phase in the Tory civil war has seen a brutal triumph of the Brexiteers, with no quarter extended to the vanquished. Of Theresa May’s Cabinet of 23, 16 have fallen as in an Elizabethan Revenge tragedy. It turns out that Boris Johnson’s favourite movie scene was the multiple killings at the end of The Godfather, and “carnage” was the verdict of Matthew Parris, the star columnist of the Times, reflecting the Remainers’ anguish. Those who called feebly for the Party to “come together” have been made to realize that the Conservatives can be united only on the basis of submission to the new leader. Boris Johnson has demanded that all MPs sign up to his “No Deal” mantra. Nobody refusing is in his Cabinet, and outside that, MPs will be threatened with deselection by their associations. This man means business: there is no more of May’s policy of balancing believers and non-believers. Naturally the shaken Left will revisit the 1930s, their favourite period of history, and I fully expect the term “new order” to feature in their discourse.
The first phase was a clearing-out of the old guard. Some of them resigned before they could be dismissed, like Chancellor Hammond and the wunderkind Rory Stewart. Jeremy Hunt had demanded to stay on as Foreign Secretary, but was offered only Defence, a decent but lesser post. Boris was unyielding, and Hunt left the Government. Other cullings were expected, like James Brokenshire, the minister who sacked Sir Roger Scruton for saying that ‘Islamophobia’ was a propaganda term invented by the Muslim Brotherhood to stifle criticism of Islam. Some ex-Remainers in the Government tried to make their peace with the new leader by publicly supporting his candidacy, and much good it did them. These were mere Laodiceans. What Boris demands is absolute, signed-up adherence to his basic doctrine, Brexit by October 31, and absolute loyalty to himself.
The second phase was the creation of the new cabinet and Government. It is a war team, with a single aim. Boris is held to have done well with the big three: Sajid Javid (Chancellor), Pritti Patel (Home Secretary), and Dominic Raab (Foreign Secretary). Ethnic minorities are advanced, and women are fairly treated. The tuning-fork appointment is Jacob Rees-Mogg (Leader of the House of Commons), the leader of the rebel ERG group, who has already caused a stir with a list of some English usages that are banished from his style guide to office usage. (Personally, I do not mind “meet with,” which is defensible, but I applaud placing “unacceptable” on the index of forbidden words; the term is feebleness posturing as righteousness.) The role of Downing Street enforcer is given to Dominic Cummings, the political strategist who created the Vote Leave slogan “take back control.” The tone of the new Government is decidedly right-wing, something that could never be said of the last one. M. Barnier calls it “combative.”
The nation welcomes Boris for a reason that another of his name, Dr. Johnson, gave in an elegy for his friend David Garrick. His death “has eclipsed the gaiety of nations and impoverished the public stock of harmless pleasure.” Boris is fun. He enjoys life, not always on terms that strict moralists would approve, and imparts his zest for living to all around him. The British have a taste for blood sports, not always indulged by the liberal guardians of public standards. On Thursday, the day after his appointment, Boris entered the Commons in gladiatorial mode, and laid waste his opponents with fire and sword. Jeremy Corbyn, he said, had been “captured, jugulated and re-programmed by his honourable friends into a Remainer.” He likened this transformation to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The chamber was packed (half-empty in the dismal days of Theresa May) and loved it. This was an old-style political beer-garden; I have not heard the Commons so noisy, so uninhibited, so relishing a complete style change. More, Boris leaves blood on the floor—as gaunt ex-members of the Cabinet can affirm—and spectators love to see blood, it is the reason they turn up.
As Boris came in to the Chamber, I caught an echo of the film Gladiator, and the gates opening to admit the fighters into the arena. The Commons, of its plan and nature, is nothing if not adversarial with its traditional two swords’ length between the Government and Opposition front benches. It is always and rightly thought of as an arena. Boris is the chosen leader of the Brexiteers, that mob intended by the Establishment to lose like Carthaginians. But in the film the Establishment’s archers, mounted in chariots, are put to flight and slain. As Commodus asks his aide, “Aren’t the Carthaginians supposed to lose?” They were, and didn’t. Boris left the Chamber to full-throated applause, having scattered his enemies. In my mind’s ear I caught a distant, repeated shout, “Maximus! Maximus! Maximus!”
Ralph Berry writes from England.