Boris Johnson's reshuffle was billed in advance as a modest affair, and in his Commons office on Thursday morning, he sacked just five ministers. But there had been murmurs in recent days that the prime minister's consigliere, Dominic Cummings, was planning to tighten No 10's grip on the government by deciding which advisers each minister should employ.
At the end of his weekly meeting last Friday with the government’s special advisers, political appointees known as “Spads”, Cummings said he would see half of them next time.
Johnson had stated publicly that Sajid Javid was safe in his post as chancellor of the exchequer and they had a good personal relationship. But the prime minister's demand that Javid should fire all his advisers and draw instead from a pool shared by No 10 was, as the former chancellor said later, one no self-respecting minister could accept.
Javid's departure has allowed Johnson to neuter the treasury and to concentrate power in No 10 to an unprecedented extent. Javid's successor, Rishi Sunak, is widely admired but the circumstances of his appointment mean that he is unlikely to resist any of Johnson's spending plans or his strategy on Brexit.
The sacking of Julian Smith as Northern Ireland secretary was a clear signal to other ministers that competence would not be enough to win favour if their loyalty to Johnson is anything short of unquestioning. And Cummings's network of Spads will be expected to report any sign of dissent by the ministers they serve to their masters at No 10.
The choice of Suella Braverman as attorney general confirms that Johnson is serious in his determination to curb the power of the courts to subject the government’s actions to judicial review. At prime minister’s questions last week, she called on Johnson to ensure that parliament remained the “sovereign and legitimate” source of law.
“The explosion of judicial review and judicial activism has led to a censoriousness and litigiousness in our society and has distorted questions that ought to remain exclusively political,” she said.
Johnson’s reshuffle has left senior Vote Leave figures in command of all the levers of power within a government that has been purged not only of dissenting voices but of sceptical ones. Downing Street hinted on Thursday that Javid’s public spending limits may no longer be operable, so the prime minister will be free to spend his way to popularity, regardless of the consequences.