There are high expectations among Tory MPs today for Boris Johnson’s Cabinet appointments. The problem? He has more supporters who believe they will be promoted than plum jobs to give. It follows that this evening’s first wave of hires for the most senior jobs will undoubtedly lead to disappointment.
Johnson has at least got off to a good start. The first appointment of Mark Spencer as Chief Whip has landed well in the Parliamentary party. Although Spencer backed Remain in the EU referendum, he is well liked across the board and the European Research Group members found praise for him after his role was unveiled on Tuesday. Tory Remainers have also praised the appointments and taken it as a sign that Johnson will not be forming a Brexiteer-only Cabinet.
The next big test for Johnson relates to his one-time leadership rival Jeremy Hunt. There had been a widespread view within the parliamentary party that Hunt ought to have a place in Johnson’s government to show that the Tory party was coming back together. For Hunt’s part, he has said he would be willing to serve in a Johnson government – and he would sign up to the Brexit policy.
After Johnson won two thirds of the vote in the contest, several of his supporters believe this means he does not need to give Hunt a great office of state. Johnson also appears to take that view. As the Daily Telegraph reports, on Tuesday ahead of the contest announcement in the Queen Elizabeth II centre, Johnson offered Hunt the role of defence secretary in his Cabinet. Hunt said he needed time to think about it and has since declined the role, saying instead that he wishes to stay where he is. This is now a test for Johnson’s leadership. Does he give in to Hunt’s demand for a better job or say no and effectively sack him?
With Conservative MPs supposed to be putting their differences aside and coming together in the name of unity, it could somewhat undermine the message to send your leadership rival to the backbenches. When David Davis lost to David Cameron by a greater margin, Cameron offered to keep David in his then position as shadow home secretary.
But should Johnson want to play hardball, what will work in his favour is the fact that the job offer he has made is viewed as a respectable one. Defence is a dream brief of many Conservative MPs – and defence is an area Hunt has repeatedly spoken about the importance of. It follows that the chance to run the department is hard to depict as a snub by the Boris camp.
When Theresa May came to power in 2016, a senior Cameroon game planned various strategies for job offers they could receive from May. As a holder of a great office of state, they concluded the only ‘demotion’ they could take was defence secretary as it is such an important Conservative party brief that it shows that the prime minister does still want you in place.
This isn’t the first time Hunt has rejected a job offer in anticipation of something better. Under Theresa May, Hunt rebutted an attempt to move him from Health. Will he be able to pull of the same trick twice? If he does find himself out of government by the end of the day, not every Tory colleague will be sympathetic.