Boris Johnson’s Cabinet, the winners and losers – Patrick Mercer

MISSION accomplished? Well, the way the media are talking up ‘second spikes’ and ‘soaring infection’ rates in Fort Worth and Sao Marcos, the fact remains that Covid appears to be in abeyance here.

Boris Johnson at Prime Minister's Questions.

Of course they’ll be 
outbreaks, of course we’ve got to be ready for another dose and of course there will be a handful of ‘health experts’ who will shriek about a foolhardy lack of caution (because that’s what keeps them in work and gets them on the New Year’s Honours), but it appears to be over for now.

And here’s a thing, if this disease had started in America or another democracy, how different would our reaction have been?

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Would we have piled sheep-like into medieval, totalitarianism or would we have been more thoughtful about the damage to our economy and wider society?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak meets shoppers in Northallerton.

It doesn’t matter, though – it’s done and now it is time for the Prime Minister to come out of his bunker, blink in the sunlight, survey the damage and take back control.

Leave aside the vast bill for all this and the dent in Britain’s ability and desire to work, park the chaotic briefings and PR disasters for a moment because the Government has got to reset itself – and urgently. But why, though?

I’ve already used this column to point out that Boris Johnson has streamlined Whitehall so that the reins of power lie almost entirely in his and – more importantly – Dominic Cummings’s hands, sidelining other departments. Surely, then, isn’t it time for that new pattern to assert itself?

Well, it should be, but Mr Cummings’s trip to Durham has shown that he’s vulnerable: his shield has been pierced and now the vultures are daring to wheel above the blood trail.

Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick is under mounting pressure.

At the same time, the timid team of lackeys known as the Cabinet are about to have change forced upon them.

Personally, I welcome the fact that the Department for International Development is about to be subsumed by the Foreign Office and its budget redistributed (quickly, I hope, on domestic projects where it’s desperately needed), but that spits out Anne-Marie 
Trevelyan.

A Brexiteer from a Northern Powerhouse constituency, Trevelyan’s useful and needs to be found another job. And there’s one probably coming up at Work and Pensions where Thérèse Coffey – another north of Watford type with clear views on Europe – has made some unfortunate remarks in response to Marcus Rashford’s school meals campaign.

That’s a gap to be plugged, but not quite such a newsworthy one as, to echo yesterday’s editorial in The Yorkshire Post, the black hole that is likely to swallow Robert Jenrick.

From the furore over his mid-lockdown dash from London to join his wife and children, to a series of questionable planning decisions, it looks as though the media have got the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government firmly in their crosshairs.

For weeks now he has been under pressure and, whilst Robert Jenrick is a favourite of the Prime Minister, Mr Johnson has already used too much firepower defending Dominic Cummings to have much left in reserve.

And then there’s Matt Hancock. I may be in a minority, but I’ve admired the way he’s stood his ground.

I wasn’t a fan in the past, but the manner he’s withstood being toasted most teatimes in those beastly briefings, the way he’s batted the negativity of the media away and fought his own infection has got my vote.

But he’s exhausted and needs a rest from this most demanding of Cabinet posts.

Whatever happens, no matter how sharp his elbows, the scheming Jeremy Hunt must never be allowed near the Cabinet again.

As chair of the Health Committee, the barbs of both his disappointment and his ambition have poked through his urbane exterior.

Then, despite lacklustre performances from Dominic Raab Raab and Priti Patel and a low profile from Michael Gove, the top team seem safe – but watch out for Rishi Sunak. Billed at first as Mr Johnson’s catspaw, this ferociously clever Yorkshireman has stolen the show and that might lead to another, bigger reshuffle.

Now, the Prime Minister has been ill and is still below par. But, remember his stumbles at the start of the crisis, before he was struck down?

And remember Michael Gove’s words in 2016 about Boris Johnson saying “...he was not capable of... leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped”?

Well, what we’ve got now is a Prime Minister who, to some, is patently loathing the job, who’s seldom seen and who’s accused of being on furlough.

The nursery language such as “stamping on the sombrero” when talking about reducing the infection curve and his high profile asking for Tintin books whilst recuperating – the 
whole man-child act just doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, the Westminster whisper is that he’s only got a couple of months left to retire honourably on the grounds of ill health before the clamour for him to go begins in earnest. I wonder...

Patrick Mercer OBE is a former Conservative MP for Newark.

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