By Robyn Banks

In 1920, the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was released to the general horror of theater-going audiences. The film told the story of a hypnotist (Dr. Caligari) who uses a somnambulist to commit murders on his behalf. Through the character of the Doctor, the films presents a very vivid and real depiction of brutal, irrational authority in the inter-war period. Flash forward 99 years, and it is a very different type of cabinet but very similar type of character that is looking to reinforce their own brutal and irrational authority upon others.

Last month, to no-one’s surprise but everyone’s horror, Boris Johnson become both the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. He immediately set about forming a cabinet that would commit to his will, regardless of how irrational it may be and how brutal the effects it will have on the 70 million who are subject to it.

Johnson’s cabinet includes pure ideologues committed to more than just a no-deal Brexit. Dominic Raab, for example, has heavy links to the Institute of Economic Affairs, a neoliberal think tank that has, amongst other things, called for the privatisation of the NHS and the abolishment of the welfare state. Crucially for Raab, the IEA has put a lot of effort into pushing not only for a no-deal Brexit, but also a no-holds-barred trade deal with the United States, positions that are held not only by the man himself but also by Johnson, who is a known supporter of both.


A sinisterly lit Dominic Raab addresses the Institute for Economic Affairs’ birthday party. Credit: YouTube fair use, via OpenDemocracy

It isn’t just Raab who lies waiting to follow Johnson’s bidding in his new cabinet. The new Home Secretary Priti Patel has repeatedly spoken about introducing an Australian-style immigration system and increasing the level of surveillance on citizens. Whist Johnson has rebuked her on the return of the death penalty, he has over the years regularly sided with Patel’s stance on the immigration system and on increased surveillance. Sajed Javid, another notable Jonsohnite, called for tax cuts for the most wealthy with the support of Boris during his campaign.

These three are the most obvious and powerful Johnson allies in the cabinet, but they certainly aren’t the only ones – the group is littered with those who are willing to commit to his various goals and actions during his tenure. Ideology is a big part of this commitment, of course, but it is also a product of the brutal and irrational authority that Johnson is already displaying in his new role.

This was made obvious when he sacked 13 MPs from the cabinet within hours of becoming PM. Members like Penny Mordaunt were sacked not because they didn’t agree with his ideas, but because they didn’t back him in the leadership election. Liam Fox was sacked for correcting Boris’s claim about a quick UK-US trade deal. 13 loyal Tories did little more than question whether Johnson was the best person for the job, and lost their cabinet roles as a result. This isn’t rational or pragmatic, it is a brutal move to stamp his authority not only on the government, but also on the country, in a demagogic demonstration of his newfound power.

All Johnson has to do is give his somnambulists a command and they follow it, without care for the harm that they will cause

None of this is to say that those in cabinet don’t have any agency, but rather that their selection is directly related to their ability to commit to following Johnson‘s will. Much like the somnambulist in Caligari’s cabinet, the likes of Raab and Patel are only there to follow Johnson’s bidding – and they know that if they fall out of line, they’ll meet a similar fate as their previous colleagues. The result of this situation is that any agency the cabinet has is limited by Johnson and his need for a sense of authority over everything and everyone.

Ultimately, Johnson’s cabinet is designed to do as he says without thought or question – they are puppets as part of his bigger plan. All Johnson has to do is give his somnambulists a command and they follow it, without care for the harm that they will cause. It’s only when we look past the cabinet and focus on Johnson that we will see that they are merely decoys who serve to distract from the irrational and brutal authority that he is already moving to enforce on the nation. Only by understanding him for the power-hungry demagogue that he is will we be able to fully comprehend and attack him and his ridiculous actions.

Featured image credit: Goldwyn Distributing Company via Wikimedia Commons

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