Opinion: Theresa May turns brutal, ruthless and bold in Cabinet choices

Prime Minister Theresa May has handed three top Brexiteers the job of extricating Britain from the EU.

Story highlights

  • Robin Oakley: Boris Johnson appointment is boldest move in reshuffle of top team
  • Selecting Johnson as foreign secretary is also riskiest one, but it may just pay off, he says

Robin Oakley was political editor and columnist for The Times newspaper in London from 1986 to 1992, the BBC's political editor from 1992 to 2000, and CNN's European political editor between 2000 and 2008. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Theresa May came to 10 Downing Street with the reputation of being a reserved and cautious politician. Within hours she had blown up that image with one of the most comprehensive Cabinet reshuffles in living memory.

Brutally she blazoned the difference between her administration and that of David Cameron by sacking Cameron's longtime finance minister (Chancellor of the Exchequer) George Osborne. Ruthlessly she signaled her belief in loyalty by dumping her former leadership rival Michael Gove after he had aided both the downfall of Cameron -- by backing the "Leave" campaign -- and the (temporary) one of his "Leave" ally Boris Johnson, whom he belatedly declined to support for the prime ministership.
    That was two "big beasts" dispatched to the backbenches where they could prove a menace if her leadership falters. But the truly spectacular risk May took was in appointing Johnson as her foreign secretary.
    On first hearing the news, many parliamentarians declared: "It's a joke: You can't be serious." Foreign dignitaries' jaws dropped visibly. And the media that had been writing Johnson's political obituary just days before, as I had done, had to refashion the thoughts into a new résumé.
    Having seen her predecessor come unstuck so spectacularly after risking his career on the European Union referendum, why has a politician as constitutionally cautious as May gone for such a big gamble?
    That Johnson is a politician who can schmooze like few others, write like an angel and warm up any room with his wit and charm is without doubt. He is a true entertainer in an age when most politicians are condemned as anonymity in a suit. But he comes with huge risks attached. As a journalist he was dropped from one paper for making up quotes. As a politician he has frequently had to apologize for gaffes. And as a foreign secretary he arrives with a sackful of embarrassments he will have to explain away.
    In an article he described Hillary Clinton, for example, as looking like a "sadistic nurse in a mental hospital." After Barack Obama urged that Britain should stay in the EU, Johnson referred to the President's "part Kenyan" ancestry and suggested that Obama was anti-British, fired by anti-colonialism. He even compared the growth of the EU to the rise of Nazi Germany.
    The French foreign minister has already greeted his appointment by declaring that Johnson had told lies in that "Leave" campaign. (That public admonition, according to Johnson, came after a warm note from Jean-Marc Ayrault welcoming him to his post and looking forward to working with him. Another world, diplomacy.)
    In fact there are internal and external reasons for the surprise appointment. May voted "Remain" but has promised "Brexit means Brexit" and has to convince skeptics she will deliver on that. She has not only appointed Johnson to the Foreign Office, she has hauled two old right-wing war horses, both former Conservative leadership candidates, off the backbenches and made David Davis Brexit minister and Liam Fox the secretary of state for international trade. We have to see them as a triangle: Three of the most prominent Brexiteers have been handed the job of extricating Britain from the EU: "This is what you guys wanted, now you deliver all the advantages you said would come with it."
    Not only does that leave May free to get on with the rest of her agenda, it means that if uncomfortable compromises have to be conceded, it will be Brexiteers who have to carry the can for them.
    The other side of all this is that the Brexit debate has been surrounded with gloom. Boris Johnson is an anti-gloom politician, a force for positivism. He is known around the world, having hosted the London Olympics as the city's mayor, in a way that few other British politicians are. He helped to sell London to companies around the world; now he will have to help sell post-Brexit Britain to the world. The new home secretary, Amber Rudd, said recently that Johnson was a guy everybody would want to have at a party, the only problem was you wouldn't want him driving you home afterward. To develop the analogy -- as foreign secretary he can get the diplomatic party going, and there will be plenty of others to drive him home, hopefully before he makes one remark too many.
    The appointment of Boris Johnson to be foreign secretary is undoubtedly a bold move. It is certainly a risky one, and there will be a few frosty encounters along the way with those he has insulted in the past. But it could just pay off.