Johnson moves boldly to consolidate power

Power play:British PM Boris Johnson, centre, gesturing during his first Cabinet meeting in London on Friday.APMatt Dunham

Power play:British PM Boris Johnson, centre, gesturing during his first Cabinet meeting in London on Friday.APMatt Dunham  

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain convened his new Cabinet on Friday, it looked less like a conclave of powerful government officials than a well-mannered classroom on the day the headmaster came to visit.

“How many hospitals are we going to build?” Mr. Johnson asked.

“Forty,” they replied in unison.

“How many more police officers are we recruiting?”

“Twenty-thousand,” they chanted.

Such a display of lockstep discipline is a striking change in a country that became used to clamorous politics under Mr. Johnson’s predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May.

In the two months since Mr. Johnson won a landslide election victory, he moved rapidly to take control of the levers of power. And to a degree unmatched by any British leader since Tony Blair, the government is now almost entirely subordinate to him. But what Mr. Johnson intends to do with all this power is still not totally clear — though the decisions he has made over the last few weeks suggest he would prefer to govern as a more centrist, less radical figure, than the politician who waged a populist campaign on the promise that he would “get Brexit done”.

In amassing his power, Mr. Johnson has displayed what is to some a surprising degree of ruthlessness.

Even Mr. Blair did not dare move against his finance chief as Mr. Johnson did this week, when he triggered the departure of Sajid Javid, Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Javid, an ally of Mr. Johnson’s, resigned rather than have many of his powers stripped and handed over to Mr. Johnson’s aides in No. 10 Downing St.

The Chancellor is considered Britain’s second-most powerful official after the Prime Minister; several have emerged as rivals to the leader. In appointing Rishi Sunak, a 39-year-old former investment banker, Mr. Johnson is out to make sure that the Treasury will not curb his free-spending agenda.

Decisive victory

“He won a decisive victory, and he is using the freedom that comes from such a majority to put in the people he wants,” said Andrew Gimson, who wrote a biography of Mr. Johnson.

Last week, in his first major decision, Mr. Johnson approved a gargantuan high-speed rail project that is designed to link London with the country’s economically challenged north. Some of his own aides and members of the Conservative Party fiercely opposed the project, known as High Speed 2, because of the $130 billion-plus price tag.

But for Mr. Johnson, ambitious public-works projects symbolise his pledge to pour resources into Britain’s Midlands and north, where many lifelong Labour Party voters defected to the Conservatives in the election.

Mr. Johnson is also still busy appealing to his pro-Brexit base with populist tactics like attacking the BBC. He has threatened BBC with legal changes that could dry up its sources of funding.

The Prime Minister’s clash with Mr. Javid was a victory for his influential adviser, Dominic Cummings, who has made a crusade of overhauling the government and centralising power in the PM’s office.NY Times

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