We won’t see the full scope of what Boris Johnson plans to do for life after Brexit until the new year. There will be a few appointments this afternoon to replace gaps in the government, and then the Queen’s Speech will introduce the legislative agenda on Thursday. But the full launch of the new government won’t be until February. What we do know is that Johnson and his senior aide Dominic Cummings have got Whitehall in their sights, and are hoping to reshape government departments to make them work better.
One of the biggest changes is carving up the Home Office so that it loses its responsibility for immigration and border security, with a new ministry carrying out that function. Normally when prime ministers split departments, it is because they want to send a signal about their priorities, even if it is more efficient for two different policy areas to be based in the same building. There is undoubtedly an element of this in setting up an immigration department, but the move would also make a great deal of sense in practical terms too.
The current Home Office looks like a behemoth but moves at the pace of a sloth on anything other than the current crisis or priority. You just have to look at the way the Domestic Abuse Bill took months longer than planned to even make it into draft form to understand how even policies that a prime minister wants can get left by the wayside as the department struggles to keep a hold of all its responsibilities. In the case of the DA Bill, a lack of bandwidth for anything but Brexit was what slowed it up so badly that it is still waiting to make its way through the House of Commons, despite Theresa May announcing it in 2017. That’s not going to change once Johnson has managed to ‘get Brexit done’: there will be the small matter of designing and implementing a new immigration system, and immigration is the area where the Home Office is most likely to mess up.
Of course, the problem with setting up a new department is that it can cause a great deal of upheaval unnecessarily. But that’s to presume that there is no chaos to be found currently. One of the reasons Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill gained such a fearsome reputation in Westminster is that as aides to May in the Home Office, they concluded that the only way to avoid total disaster was to turn into total control freaks, personally interfering in the day-to-day running of the department and its agencies far more than special advisers normally would. A smaller Home Office and a new Immigration department could make both policy areas work less as though they are always on precipice of the next political crisis, and more like a properly functioning, fit-for-purpose part of government.
Immigration is always a hot political issue, but if this government messes up its new post-Brexit system, then it will find its solid majority will turn into a lot of very anxious and angry MPs who have a lot of devastated and frightened constituents. The stakes are too high for the current arrangements to continue, and Johnson’s team appear to have recognised that.