Boris brings a flash of the mafioso into Downing Street – but will we ever find out where the bodies are buried?

Our new PM demands, and rewards, absolute loyalty and it meant that a cabinet massacre was inevitable

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 24 July 2019 19:11
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Boris Johnson's motorcade blocked by protesters on way to meet the Queen

Once, Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel had to give some bad news to someone who wanted a favour from the man who has become our new prime minister. This old friend had once been close to Boris, but had crossed him, some years ago. Boris wasn’t going to help: “He’s quite Sicilian, you see” she explained.

It is no surprise either, that Johnson’s favourite film, more a training video, is The Godfather. No surprise, either, that virtually every Huntite in the Cabinet – including Hunt himself – has been fired. Penny Mordaunt and Liam Fox possessed impeccable Brexiteer credentials, but Fox publicly doubted the Johnson strategy, while Mordaunt's job was required by any number of flag-waving Johnson capos. So Fox was garrotted and poor Penny left in the cold store.

May’s two remaining cronies, Karen Bradley and James Brokenshire, found themselves being fitted for concrete overcoats. Chris Grayling was allowed to throw himself under the bus, appropriately.

Leaving changes of political party aside, for obvious reasons, it is the bloodiest clear-out in modern political history. When a panicked Harold Macmillan dropped seven of his cabinet back in 1962 it was given the sobriquet “night of the long knives”.

There have been some nasty muggings since then, including the one when Theresa May took over from David Cameron, and George Osborne got the invite to No 10. Rather than be informed he was off to the foreign office, she said he should go off and learn some manners and humility on the backbenches.

No “peacetime” transition to a new prime minister or any other reshuffle has been as traumatic as this. The boot of the Cadillac is hardly big enough to hold all the corpses on their way to sleep with the fishes.

It’s never happened like this. Not Cameron to May, when the Brexiteers were handed all the key Brexit jobs. Not Blair to Brown, when some prominent Blairites quit after their patron lost his job; but Brown eventually brought back Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell.

And when John Major took over from Margaret Thatcher in a particularly violent regicide all three contenders (Major, Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd) worked remarkably well together. Nothing is like this massacre.

The last time a PM had any serious trouble telling the Queen he’d have to “try” to form a government was, as has been pointed out recently, Alec Douglas-Home back in 1963, when some of his most senior ministers were reluctant to serve under him, and it looked like the Tories might tumble out of office, even though they enjoyed a Commons majority of around 100. (It was Iain Macleod, Enoch Powell and Rab Butler who were the dissentients, upset at how the leader had been selected by an establishment cabal, and how Butler had been passed over again. In the end, Butler agreed to be foreign secretary, and the government survived.)

This is also a cabinet that is required to learn the Johnson Brexit catechism – in effect an oath of loyalty to the doctrine of Brexit, “do or die”, including the belief in no-deal Brexit if necessary. It also amounts to a personal oath of loyalty to Johnson himself.

It’s a bit creepy – a bit like a mafia ritual – and made all the more so with the arrival of the likes of Dominic Cummings, a sort of consigliore. Inside No 10, Godfather Boris is surrounded by his made men, the not-so-Goodfellas of Brexit and his days running City Hall like a Chicago mobster. An exaggeration, I know, but the cult of Boris is real and its devotees dangerous. Ever since he was manipulating “stooges” at the Oxford Union to further his career, he has employed every dark art in every job he has ever had. The Bullingdon Club’s codes, absurd and arrogant as they are, also have mafia-esque overtones. I don’t suppose I need mention that business with Darius Guppy.

Sebastian Shakespeare, a journalist, has known Johnson for years, and dated Rachel while she, too, was at Oxford. Shakespeare has written: “Whenever I see him at London parties these days, we reminisce in mock reverie about our Oxford University days together before he always mutters under his breath the words: ‘Omerta, omerta.’

“This is a reference to the code of silence practised by the mafia (and a refusal to give evidence to police about illegal activities). Boris says it half in jest, but also half in earnest…

“He expects loyalty from his closest friends (of whom there are very few) and the unspoken understanding is that their loyalty will be reciprocated.”

One day, perhaps, someone will tell the true story about how Johnson wound up in No 10, how he made sure that, successively, Raab, Rory Stewart and Michael Gove were dealt with, and he was left to fight his chosen opponent, Hunt, in the country. One day we may know what he really wanted to do about Brexit, and why he packed his government with Brexiteers. Someone will break the omerta. It will probably be Boris.

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