What’s in Boris Johnson’s in-tray if he makes it to No 10?

Brexit is the big one but the next PM has plenty to worry about – starting with Iran

If Boris Johnson is declared the winner of the Conservative leadership contest on Tuesday and moves into Downing Street the next day, the hard work will begin immediately.

Here’s a look at what will be top of the Johnson in-tray.

A cabinet reshuffle

This is the first task of any new PM and while it involves rewarding some loyal allies it means disappointing more. Several Johnson loyalists, old and new, for example, have had their eye on the post of chancellor, but only one can do it. While a complete clearout of May’s cabinet is expected, not least of remain-minded ministers, if a rapid changeover is required Johnson could always leave many junior ministers in their posts.


The big one, and the issue that will – probably even more than for Theresa May – define a Johnson premiership. He has promised to rapidly renegotiate almost all of May’s departure deal, ditching the Irish backstop border guarantee policy, something that would seem a huge task over any timescale, let alone little more than 12 weeks, a fair proportion of which is taken up by a summer break. If this fails, he will be set on a no-deal departure for 31 October, and a likely huge clash with MPs.


If Brexit wasn’t enough, a new Johnson government must immediately take steps to make sure he doesn’t begin his time in No 10 with a slide into war. The seizure of a British-flagged tanker by Iran in what London says were international waters has many layers, not least the hugely hawkish stance towards Iran by Donald Trump and his team; divisions with the US over the Iran nuclear deal; and questions over how an already-stretched Royal Navy can protect other ships.

It is complex, fast-moving and hugely dangerous. Johnson did not cover himself in glory as foreign secretary, especially over Iran. It will be his task to prove he has learned.

Managing parliament and Tory MPs

Johnson will start as PM with a working Commons majority of four, thanks to the DUP, but within weeks it is likely to be down to three if as expected the Liberal Democrats win in the Brecon and Radnorshire byelection. If this wasn’t tricky enough, a small but significant section of Tory MPs openly detest Johnson, and will not want to help him out.

Expect Labour to call a no-confidence motion in the new PM at some point, though it remains to be seen whether this will happen before the summer recess or in the autumn.

Loosening the purse strings

Such has been the fiscal largesse on display from both Johnson and Jeremy Hunt during the hustings process that much as he will seek to kick any decisions towards an autumn budget, voters – especially Tory members – will be expecting both tax cuts and more spending on areas such as education and the police.

There are two problems with this. First, a no-deal Brexit would wipe out any “fiscal headroom” (ie permitted extra borrowing) Johnson might have, and his promise to instead spend the £39bn EU divorce settlement is election battleground fantasy. Also, piloting complex fiscal changes through parliament is hard enough at the best of times, let alone with a tiny working majority and a partly hostile backbench.

Everything non-Brexit

This might sound glib, but there is a lot to consider – during the three-plus years of Brexit introversion May’s government failed to properly grasp any of a series of long-term, pressing national problems: the crisis in social care; the future of the NHS; a climate emergency; the increasingly insecure future of work; a broken housing market; rampant poverty, including among many working people.

This is a huge workload for any new administration, not least one grappling with a never-ending constitutional crisis, a possible self-created recession and political instability.

Being prime ministerial

Critics might say this is Johnson’s single biggest challenge. The leadership process has shown that while he endlessly harked back to supposed successes as London mayor – an often ceremonial role with relatively few powers – Johnson was notably quieter about his period as foreign secretary.

Being prime minister is like the latter, to a factor of 10 – a never-ending succession of red boxes containing vital documents, of urgent briefings, of a whole system hanging on your decisions. It is wrong to call Johnson lazy – no idle person could combine being an MP with writing as many books and articles as he does – but he has a tendency to ignore advice, pluck statistics out of the air and rely on sudden, cheap glibness. Curbing these long habits will be a daily struggle.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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