A muffled shuffle

Written by Kate Shannon on 15 January 2018 in Inside Politics

It’s a new year but it doesn’t look like a fresh start for Prime Minister Theresa May 

 

Cabinet reshuffle: Picture credit - Crown Copyright

As people returned to work after the Christmas break, in leaden spirits after a fortnight of festivities, the nation was hit by a Westminster reshuffle.

Theresa May, strong and stable as ever, decided with the new year, she would update her team to help get over the debacle that was 2017. 

Number 10 said May wanted to appoint more women to ministerial roles and promote MPs from ethnic minorities in a bid to show the Conservatives are more representative of modern Britain.

This sounded good but the reality was quite different. The changes, which lasted a grand total of two days, were branded the “worst reshuffle” in modern history by former chancellor George Osborne and “a lacklustre PR exercise” by Labour.

Writing in the Evening Standard, which he now edits, Osborne said: “You have to hand it to this Prime Minister: she’s given us the hat-trick of the worst reshuffle, the worst party conference speech and the worst manifesto in modern history.

“If they were not facing one of the worst oppositions we’ve ever had, the Tories would be finished.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn added his own views by saying: “The government’s big plan for the new year is to dodge the real issues and reshuffle the pack in a pointless and lacklustre PR exercise.

“It’s simply not good enough. You can’t make up for nearly eight years of failure by changing the name of a department.”

Despite the initial buzz from political journalists and commentators, at the end of the reshuffle, or “refresh” as May called it, the bulk of the top jobs remained in the same hands and it seems the

PM’s plans for change were thwarted by some senior members of the cabinet refusing to move.

So what changes did May actually make?

On day one, the big story was the resignation of Justine Greening.

Greening chose to leave government rather than be shifted from education to the work and pensions brief.

In her resignation statement, she said: “Social mobility matters to me and our country more than a ministerial career.

“I’ll continue to work outside of government to do everything I can to create a country for the first time that has equality of opportunity for young people wherever they are growing up.”

She has been replaced by Damian Hinds, while Esther McVey has been promoted to become the new work and pensions secretary.

Jeremy Hunt also made the news for allegedly refusing to move to a new position as business secretary. Clinging to the health brief, he seems to have persuaded May to let him remain and has had social care added to his title.

Other moves include Brandon Lewis becoming Tory chairman. This was despite the official Conservative Twitter account accidentally naming Chris Grayling in the role, much to the delight of political opponents.

Matt Hancock was made culture secretary and Karen Bradley has moved to the Northern Ireland brief. She replaces James Brokenshire, who resigned for health reasons.

In Scotland, there was no change and Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale MP David Mundell was reappointed Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mundell, who was first appointed to the role by former PM David Cameron following the 2015 General Election, has carried on in the cabinet role since Theresa May took office in July 2016.

He said: “It has been an honour to serve since May 2015 and I am delighted to have been reappointed as Secretary of State for Scotland.

“My priority at this crucial time remains to ensure that Scotland gets the best possible deal as we leave the European Union.”

On day two, May rejigged the junior ministerial team and was marginally more successful in diluting the male, pale and stale look of her team.

She managed to boost the number of women in government from 30 to 37 and the number of people from BME backgrounds from four to nine. 

Downing Street said that following the reshuffle, there were more women attending cabinet, more female ministers and more members of the government from ethnic minorities.

The number of women who are full cabinet members has remained, as before, at six, with the number of other senior female ministers also attending cabinet rising from two to four, taking the total number of women around the table to 10.

However, the Sutton Trust published analysis claiming the new top team was more privileged than before.

It said that more than a third of those who will be attending cabinet were educated privately – five times the figure for the overall population – while almost half studied at Oxbridge.

May insisted the reshuffle brought in “fresh talent” which would allow her to focus on important issues for the county.

She said: “This government is about building a country fit for the future – one that truly works for everyone with a stronger economy and a fairer society.

“This reshuffle helps us do just that by bringing fresh talent into government, boosting delivery in key policy areas like housing, health and social care, and ensuring the government looks more like the country it serves.

“It also allows a new generation of gifted ministers to step up and make life better for people across the whole UK.”

Brexiteer lawyer Dominic Raab took over at housing, Alok Sharma is the new employment minister, Caroline Dinenage is now in health and Margot James has moved to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

In the midst of these changes, Jo Johnson was forced to defend the misplaced appointment of controversial journalist Toby Young to the board of the government’s universities regulator in parliament. The next day, Johnson was shifted from his post as universities minister to the Department for Transport as Sam Gyimah replaced him in the HE brief.

Speaking on the BBC’s Daily Politics show last week, new Conservative deputy chairman James Cleverly said he was not worried about the criticism the reshuffle had garnered.

He said: “Today and yesterday were about reshuffles and that always causes lots of froth and drama in the media.

“Today’s headlines are what they are – tomorrow and onwards we will be getting the really important stuff which is about what we are doing, what we are delivering in government.”

Prior to making the changes, reports were circulating that May was going to add a second Brexit minister to the Cabinet specifically to prepare for a ‘no deal’ outcome.

The reality was slightly different and the decision to promote Suella Fernandes, who chairs the European Research Group of backbench Tory Brexiteers, who have urged the government to be ready for no deal, caused consternation among opposition politicians. 

She will join Steve Baker and Secretary of State David Davis, who was also an outspoken leave campaigner, as a minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU).

Jenny Chapman, the shadow Brexit minister, said: “Theresa May has chosen to use this reshuffle to appoint yet another extreme voice to the Brexit department.

“Suella Fernandes has absolutely no interest in negotiating with the EU.

“She wants the UK to crash out of the EU without an agreement, no matter the damage that would do to jobs and the economy. This decision once again shows the Prime Minister putting her own survival above the national interest.”

Labour MP Alison McGovern, a supporter of the Open Britain campaign group, called it a “capitulation by the Prime Minister”.

She said: “Suella Fernandes is the second chair of the hard Brexit-supporting European Research Group to be appointed as a DExEU minister in the past seven months.” 

She called on the PM to reverse her decision to leave the single market and customs union.

Theresa May has faced so much criticism since she called the disastrous snap election in April that she was probably hoping this reshuffle would go without a hitch. However, those unhappy with the recent reshuffle might not have long to wait until more changes are announced. 

If reports are to be believed, this “refresh” is more of a spring clean of government ahead of May’s English local elections rather than a full-blown reset, and more changes might be announced later in the year.

Whether this will bring the strength and stability May has so long been wishing for remains to be seen.

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