Boris Johnson's cabinet choices point to assertive policy from UK government

Appointments of Dominic Raab and Ben Wallace suggest new British PM to take more robust approach to global security challenges, including in the Middle East
REFILE - QUALITY REPEAT   Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain July 25, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters Tv via REUTERS

The dramatic changes in personnel Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, has made to his cabinet are designed to send a clear and unequivocal message to the outside world: this is a government that means business.

After the three years of prevarication and perceived weakness on the international stage that came to define outgoing prime minister Theresa May’s term at Downing Street, Mr Johnson is clearly intent on instilling a modicum of Britain’s famous bulldog spirit in the outlook of his government.

In what some commentators in London have described as the “summer’s day massacre”, a total of 17 cabinet ministers left the government immediately after Mr Johnson’s return from Buckingham Palace on Wednesday afternoon, at which he accepted Queen Elizabeth’s request to form Britain’s new government.

Some, such a former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who had contested the Tory leadership contest with Mr Johnson and came a poor second, opted to resign after being offered the lesser job of defence secretary. Others, such as Penny Mordaunt, who had abjectly failed to make any mark in her 85 days in charge of the Ministry of Defence, were dismissed.

In their place, Mr Johnson has appointed a collection of close allies and committed Brexiteers whom, or so he believes, will give him their full support as he attempts the Herculean task of completing Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union by the latest deadline of October 31, with or without a deal.

FILE - In this Thursday, May 25, 2017 file photo U.S. President Donald Trump jokes with British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson as British Prime Minister Theresa May walks past during a working dinner meeting at the NATO headquarters during a NATO summit of heads of state and government in Brussels. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, Pool, File)

But while achieving Brexit is clearly going to be the overriding priority of Mr Johnson’s government for the immediate future, the selection of many key ministers with a right-of-centre outlook is also likely to have a profound impact on Britain’s dealings with the outside world, particularly with regard to the Trump administration in Washington.

Mr Johnson who, in common with the American president, has enjoyed a high media profile before taking office, has developed a close relationship with Donald Trump prior to entering Downing Street, so much so that Mr Trump even drew a direct comparison between Mr Johnson and himself, remarking of Britain’s new prime minister, “They call him Britain Trump.”

The expectation therefore is that the genuine warmth that exists between the two men will lead to closer co-operation between London and Washington on a whole range of issues, from trade to global security, which will be a marked change in tone from the somewhat frosty relationship that prevailed between Mrs May and Mr Trump.

This was best summed up by the insulting language used by Kim Darroch, Britain’s outgoing ambassador to the US, who described the White House under Mr Trump as being “dysfunctional”, and the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal as being an act of “diplomatic vandalism” carried out to spite his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Britain’s reluctance to co-operate fully with the US has been very much in evidence in London’s calamitous response to the recent escalation in tensions in the Gulf, which has resulted in the British-registered oil tanker Stena Impero being hijacked by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and taken hostage in the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas.

The fundamental reason this was allowed to happen was because, despite public warnings from Tehran that it intended to take such action in retaliation for the impounding of one of its own ships in Gibraltar for trying to sell oil to Syria, the British government declined offers of help from Washington to afford better protection for British shipping in the Gulf.

Ben Wallace, U.K. defence secretary, arrives for a meeting of cabinet minsters at number 10 Downing Street in London, U.K., on Thursday, July 25, 2019. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is chairing the first meeting of his cabinet after a cull of Theresa May’s ministers and the appointment of a team committed to delivering Brexit by Oct. 31. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Both Mrs May and Mr Hunt believed that co-operating with the US, which is trying to set up an international coalition to protect Gulf shipping from attacks by Iranian gunboats, would inflict further damage to the Iran deal which, despite Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw last year, Britain and the other European signatories continue to support.

Thus, rather than joining forces with their traditional allies in the US, Mr Hunt, in one of his last acts as foreign secretary, made the bizarre suggestion of creating a 'European Maritime Mission' to enhance the security arrangements for Gulf shipping.

As France is the only other European nation that could make any meaningful naval contribution to joint operations with the Royal Navy, the concept is a non-runner from the start, especially as – with the latest Brexit deadline fast approaching – major European powers like France and Germany are hardly enthusiastic about helping Britain out of a hole.

Moreover, there is no practical use to the Europeans setting up their own naval patrols when the US already has a powerful aircraft carrier strike group operating in the area, one that is more than capable of dealing with any threats mounted by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.

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Mrs May and Mr Hunt believed that co-operating with the US would inflict further damage to the Iran deal

Hopefully the muddled thinking we have recently seen from the May government, which is mainly down to its reluctance to establish a proper working relationship with the Trump administration, will be a thing of the past now that Mr Johnson has established his imprimatur on the new government.

Certainly, the two key appointments with responsibility for Britain’s future national security outlook suggest Britain will, going forward, take a far more robust approach to global security challenges such as Iran than we witnessed under the May government.

Dominic Raab, the new foreign secretary who served briefly as Brexit secretary under Mrs May before resigning over the terms of her withdrawal agreement, is one of the more hawkish members of the new administration. The son of a Czech-born Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis in 1938, Mr Raab previously worked as a lawyer at the Foreign Office, where he helped to prosecute war criminals and advised on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Meanwhile Ben Wallace, the new defence secretary, is a former Scots Guards officer who has previously  taken a hard line on Islamist terror groups like Hezbollah.

With politicians of this calibre occupying key positions in Mr Johnson’s new government, we can expect to see Britain being a lot more assertive on the world stage than it was under its predecessor.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s Defence and Foreign Affairs Editor

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National