Every premiership begins with a flurry of activity – statements, appointments and visits – that signals both their strategy for the months ahead and the challenges they will face.
Like Theresa May, Boris Johnson began his premiership with a sweeping statement of domestic ambition – only where May promised to address “burning injustices”, Johnson has promised to “energise Britain” with new spending on health, education, infrastructure and policing. A very notable difference has been the willingness of the Johnson administration to commit to spending – something absent from May’s initial statement.
On Brexit, the words and approach have been very different. May offered little on her approach to Brexit – we had to wait until her party conference speech for her to tell us what she thought the UK's exit from the EU might look like.
Johnson, on the other hand, has both been “turbocharging” no-deal preparations, while claiming he is in the market for a deal – on his backstop-free terms. While May ultimately found her red lines stopped her delivering a Brexit that Parliament would accept, Johnson may find he too has failed to leave himself an escape hatch if he wants to use it.
Theresa May’s reshuffle saw a total of 13 cabinet ministers leave the government, while Johnson’s saw an unprecedented 19 Cabinet ministers depart.
However, Johnson has taken a very different approach to May in his appointments. Although May gave key Brexit roles to committed Leavers, she balanced both sides in her Cabinet – which proved to be a recipe for stasis and indecision. Johnson by contrast has appointed a government in which every minister has committed to his policy of leaving the EU on 31 October come what may.
Prime ministers also appoint their own advisers, who play an important role in setting direction and managing relationships within government. May brought in Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, former advisers in the Home Office who were known to have a difficult relationship with officials (and from No.10 created a huge amount of animosity with ministers).
Johnson’s decision to bring in Dominic Cummings, the former campaign director of Vote Leave and avowed critic of Whitehall, sends a fiercer signal of prime ministerial intent on control. But unlike Timothy and Hill, whose mission in life was to protect Theresa May, Johnson has appointed someone whose mission in life will be to deliver Brexit.
The other striking Johnson decision is to by-pass serving civil servants for the key role of “sherpa” and EU adviser and give the job instead to ex-diplomat (and ex-special adviser) David Frost. It is unclear at the moment how this will work out and quite how Frost will work with Stephen Barclay – who is back as the minister in charge of negotiations. Johnson has recreated the potential for conflict between No.10 and the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU).
Johnson eschewed machinery of government changes, unlike Theresa May. While she signalled implicit support for leaving the Customs Union by creating the new Department for International Trade, his major change was to put the centre in charge of no-deal planning under Michael Gove – even if civil servants stay on at DExEU.
Theresa May’s statement on the steps of Downing Street was a paean to the Union, and she put these words into practice, making visits to Scotland and Wales within her first two days as PM, and travelling to Northern Ireland soon after. The tone of these visits was conciliatory, as May promised to include the Scottish and Welsh governments in the Brexit process and attempted to allay concerns over a potential hard border in Northern Ireland.
Johnson has also been on the road – but with a very different intent and message. Before travelling to the devolved nations, Johnson took his Downing Street message across England, making major speeches in Birmingham and Manchester, and when he did reach Scotland and Wales he openly clashed with their governments over the potential for a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson’s time in Belfast was complicated by the absence of a power-sharing agreement, and by his own dependence on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for a Westminster majority. Although he held talks with all Northern Irish parties in support of power-sharing efforts, he was accused of bias after holding a private dinner with the DUP beforehand.
The major difference, however, between May and Johnson’s early travel plans is that May also made a tour of European capitals. Johnson has no plans to travel to Europe and has insisted that he will only meet with EU leaders if they renounce support for the backstop. This may mean he only meets them in late August, when he attends the G7 summit.
Johnson’s refusal to meet EU leaders extends to Ireland, and he has held a stormy phone call with Taoiseach Leo Varadker. Although May made no early visit to Ireland, within two weeks of taking office she had hosted the then Taoiseach Enda Kenny in London, leading him to declare that UK–Ireland relations had "never been better".
Regardless of the policy content, British government is clearly set to experience a very different kind of prime ministerial leadership. Whether this kind of leadership will succeed, faced with the challenges of delivering Brexit and governing with the narrowest of parliamentary majorities, remains to be seen.