10th January 2018
Theresa May has, as expected, marked the beginning of the Parliamentary year with a two-day reshuffle. It was doubtless intended as a sign of strength following an agreement on Phase One of the Brexit negotiation and a “successful” Budget. However, wall-to-wall negative press coverage has ensured that this reshuffle will be remembered as indicative of her weakness, with accusations of poor communication from No 10 as papers were forced to back-track on pre-briefed speculation. The outcome has been a renewed scrutiny of the Prime Minister and speculation about her longevity.
The reshuffle began with CCHQ where two technology gaffes provided plenty of entertainment for political hacks on their first day back. First, the Conservatives’ website was down as a result of the party failing to renew their https certificate. Second, the official CCHQ twitter account published a tweet congratulating Chris Grayling on his appointment to Party Chairman. In fact, the Party Chairman role was to be filled by former Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis, and the tweet was swiftly deleted.
In addition to the appointment of Lewis, the popular and prolific tweeter James Cleverley was made Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party. Other notable appointments are Andrew Jones as Vice Chair for Business Engagement and Chris Skidmore as Vice Chairman for Policy. The PM posed for a photo opportunity with other new CCHQ appointees including Kemi Badenoch, Rehman Chisti and Maria Caulfield, in a move almost certainly designed to signal an increased commitment to building a campaign headquarters than can compete with Labour’s superior membership figures and social media footprint.
In the Cabinet, there was no change in the main Offices of State and similarly prominent Brexiteers Liam Fox and Michael Gove remain in place. In light of the widely reported troubled relationships which May holds with colleagues such as Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson, this clearly indicates the imperative placed on continuity in the key Brexit departments. However, further evidence of the PM’s weakness was made evident when Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt refused to move to the Department for Business, Environment and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). He instead walked out of the meeting with an increased Ministerial remit of social care. The PM was also reportedly unable to move Greg Clark from BEIS forcing a reorganisation of other changes, culminating in Justine Greening challenging Theresa May to leave her in place at the Department for Education or she would leave. Greening walked in a chain of events that left party members bemoaning the fact that a northern female in a same-sex relationship who represents a marginal seat had left.
In the absence of major changes across most of the Cabinet, the Department for Communities and Local Government has received a rebranding by becoming the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government – a clear nod to the PM’s domestic policy focus on housing. One change which has received less media attention is that the Ministry of Justice has seen its fifth change in the top job in two and a half years.
At a junior ministerial level, the stars of the future from the 2015 and 2017 intake have predictably been given their first proper rung on the ladder. Appointees include Lucy Frazer, Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Oliver Dowden and Suella Fernandes. These appointees were also designed to evidence the diversity of the conservative parliamentary party, although some sceptics have noted that of those “old, pale, male and stale” Ministers who have been moved on, it is those that represent remain-voting areas and would be most likely to cause trouble on the backbenches who have survived.
The logic of some moves is clear – Dowden’s experience in Cameron’s No 10 means he is ideally placed for a Cabinet Office role, Frazer is a respected QC ergo Justice, Fernandes leads a group of Conservative Brexiteers (the European Research Group) and therefore moves to DExEU. However, with other appointments the reasoning is less obvious. Commentators questioned why Rory Stewart, a foreign policy specialist who is mid-way through developing the Government’s Africa strategy, was moved from the Department for International Development to be Prisons Minister. Likewise, at the Department for Work and Pensions, David Gauke was doing a good job of managing the concerns around universal credit so why move him on now?
There are also dangers on the horizon. First, although business has broadly welcomed the continuation of Greg Clark as BEIS Secretary, there has been fierce criticism of his ability by some online; focussing on the allegedly slow pace of his decision making. It remains to be seen what impact this will have on Cabinet relationships. Second, remain supporter Caroline Nokes has been given the incredibly politically difficult immigration brief and may be challenged by Brexiteers who value reducing immigration. Third, this has been a reshuffle marked by internal movements as much as the promotion of new talent. There is a doubt that moving Ministers who have only just got their heads round their ministerial briefs is conducive to good governance. Fourth, the churn of Ministers is particularly prominent at the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice with potential rows on universal credit and prisons only just being kept at bay. Fifth, as in any reshuffle there are losers who could cause trouble on the backbenches. Justine Greening may transpire to become another Brexit rebel whilst John Hayes could cause significant difficulties for the Government regarding transport issues.
This remains a Cabinet with talent. Gauke showed his class by adeptly making a statement on the Parole Board and Victim Support hours after taking on his new brief at Justice and the highly competent Esther McVey will prove a welcome returning face who can also breathe some life into conservative media appearances. However, that Andrea Leadson, Greg Clark and Liz Truss remain in place shows the limits of the PM’s power when they were all tipped for the sack or demotion. When asked whether there is a message behind the reshuffle a No 10 spokesperson replied that it is “too soon to say”. Yet a clear message seems to have been communicated.
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