Theresa May has no authority to stamp

Written by Tom Freeman on 9 January 2018 in Comment

Have any of the moves in Theresa May’s reshuffle been her decision?

Theresa May manifesto launch - Danny Lawson/PA 

Theresa May revealed her true colours during the general election campaign she had called, when forced to hastily backtrack on her manifesto commitments to take elderly people’s homes off them to pay for their social care.

Her arms outstretched, she seemed panicked when facing the most obvious of questions and appeared almost hysterical as she proclaimed: “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed!” This was not a PM in control.

Whatever happened behind the twitchy curtains of Number 10 Downing Street yesterday, it certainly didn’t give the impression of someone who has taken back that control.

People in the media get very excited about cabinet reshuffles.

Senior political journalists spend a day camped out in Downing Street bellowing questions at every arrival, and are greeted with a cursory wave if they’re lucky.

The Prime Minister usually looks to shuffle out dissenting voices and promote the loyal in an attempt to strengthen her grip on government.

The move carries its risks. Go too far, and you create a group of disgruntled plotters seeking to undermine your authority. Some of your highest profile appointments might not accept the job.

The trick is to stamp your authority without stamping too hard.

But on yesterday’s evidence Theresa May has no authority to stamp.

For a prime minister who called a snap election to strengthen her position, only to weaken it, whose landmark speech about the new direction of her party fell flat when she lost her voice, and who has surrounded herself with hard Brexiteers who want to control the narrative, this was a chance to end the tensions, take control of Brexit and frame an ambitious plan for the country.

At the start of the day her spokesman had said: “It’s an opportunity to refresh the government and just to give added impetus to the prime minister’s reform agenda while continuing to deliver on Brexit.”

But the most significant moves in the reshuffle weren’t even May’s decisions.

Jeremy Hunt is thought to have refused the opportunity to lead Britain’s first industrial strategy in 40 years and demanded he stay at health. He has a new title which incorporates social care, but that policy portfolio was already in his brief.

Similarly, adding housing to communities secretary Sajid Javid’s title looks more of a PR move than a statement of ambition.

Justine Greening also refused a new job – as work and pensions secretary – but was not awarded the same flexibility as Hunt, and stepped out of government.

Having already lost allies and fellow remain campaigners Michael Fallon and Damian Green amid claims of sexual misconduct, and with Chancellor Philip Hammond undermined by the Brexiteers ahead of his budget, yesterday’s reshuffle opened with the news that another key ally, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, had resigned due to ill health.

Then Brexiteer Chris Grayling was announced as party chairman by the Conservative party’s twitter account. The tweet was deleted, and Remainer Brandon Lewis was installed in the post, albeit with Brexiteer James Cleverly as his deputy. Remainer David Lidlington moved from justice to become cabinet office minister.

But Boris Johnson, who was accused of endangering the life of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe while she was in prison in Iran after he contradicted her on what her business in the country was, who joked that private investors could make Libya “the next Dubai” if they “clear away the dead bodies” first, kept his job.

David Davis, who was famously pictured at Brexit negotiations with no notes whatsoever, who leads a department with 143 vacancies, who confirmed the existence of secret dossiers on the impact of Brexit only for them to emerge as flimsy “sectoral analyses” papers, also remains at the helm of the process.

Arch Brexiteer Esther McVey returns to government as work and pensions secretary, a department she is familiar with. Her championing of the bedroom tax as a DWP minister under David Cameron is thought to have lost her her Wirral West seat in 2015.

Junior minister appointments will be announced today, but there is a sense that it is the hard Brexit plotters who have strengthened their grip on government, not the Prime Minister.

In total so far, 16 ministers have kept their jobs. With the appearance that nothing has changed, what exactly was this reshuffle supposed to have achieved? 


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