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May’s reshuffle backfires

Yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle, trailed heavily in the media, was meant to be the latest relaunch for Theresa May. It was briefed that she would clear out dead wood, bring in fresh talent, introduce more women, and generally assert her authority as Prime Minister. Instead, what we saw was all the media briefing backfiring in spectacular fashion, with relaunch not getting off the launchpad. The attempted reassertion of authority evaporated. It was all reminiscent of the days of Gordon Brown.

Perhaps most of the trouble can be attributed to the heavy-handed media briefing beforehand. Journalists had clearly been told that some Ministers were for the chop and that others would be moved. When that did not happen, and said journalists were made to look silly, they pulled no punches in declaring the reshuffle a complete shambles. Perhaps, if the pre-briefing had not happened, or had not been apparently so specific, then the PM could have got away with the false starts that occurred in the day.

The rest of this blog looks at the actual changes made and their implications.

The new Damian Green

Jeremy Hunt and Chris Grayling had been tipped for running the Cabinet Office, with or without the title of First Secretary of State. Modernisers might have been hoping for someone like Nick Boles making a return to the frontline. In the end, though, the PM went for ‘steady as she goes’ appointing David Lidington, moving him from Justice. He is not seen as partisan, is a genuine political survivor, and so should be able to carry on the Damian Green role of banging heads together when disagreements between Departments emerge. As a former Europe Minister, some might see him as being in a good position to also continue to liaise with Departments on Brexit issues, although some Leave backing MPs might also see that background as a hindrance. All in all, a safe appointment.

The Remainers

Much of the coverage of the reshuffle focussed on how little had changed. The PM helped create this narrative by actually calling all Cabinet Ministers into Number 10, even if she was just telling them they were staying put. We’re not sure that was good man- or media-management. Karen Bradley moved to the Northern Ireland role and David Gauke has moved for the second time in a year from DWP to Justice, becoming the first solicitor to serve as Lord Chancellor, normally a preserve for Barristers. It will be interesting to see whether he continues the reforming drive in the Department of Justice. With no changes in the major positions of state – FCO, Home Office, Treasury, Exiting the EU – this was never going to be reported as a major reforming reshuffle.

Refuseniks and resignation

By all accounts Jeremy Hunt was meant to be moved from Department of Health to BEIS. A combination of his desire to stay at Health, and Greg Clark’s refusal to move from Business, blew a hole in the PM’s plans. A bizarre situation emerged, with Greg Clark waiting in Number Ten for over two hours, whilst Jeremy Hunt made his case to remain in his role. Finally, the PM relented and kept both in their current posts. Journalists who had been assured Hunt would be moved and Clark sacked, shouted ‘weakness’ and ‘shambles’. In many ways, it is a tribute to Hunt that he wanted to stay at Health. (We remember reports of John Reid being reshuffled by Tony Blair for the third time in a year. Entering Number Ten Reid’s open line was ‘it’s not f**king Health is it?’. Unfortunately for him it was.) Most Ministers would have welcomed a break from such a demanding Department and all the accompanying negative news stories. As Hunt clearly has one eye on a future leadership contest, moving to a new brief may have helped him boost his profile with Conservative members. Will staying at Health hold him back? We shall see. Sir Humphrey would have called it a ‘brave’ decision. For the NHS, on the one hand having a Minister who knows the brief so well gives stability. On the other, doctors and nurses will no doubt be holding their head in their hands, as that stability denies them the changes they have been crying out for.

As for Greg Clark, he has an important job to get on with developing the Government’s Industrial Strategy, vital as Brexit negotiations continue apace. Again, stability can be seen as an important asset. However, the level of briefing against Clark from some of his colleagues – ‘useless’, ‘didn’t have the guts to sack his own SpAd’, and even ‘a s**t’ – has seemingly undermined him. If he didn’t know before he does know now that there are lots of senior colleagues totally against him. He may find it difficult to truly get on with his job under such circumstances.

Finally, Justine Greening refusing the job as Work and Pensions Secretary really threw a spanner in the works. It meant she was the only Cabinet Minister to be forced out other than Patrick McLoughlin. She was the first (amazingly) Comprehensive school educated Secretary of State for Education and had built a high profile in the LGBT community after her own decision to come out. Given the PM had talked up the reshuffle as being modernising, the loss of Greening was actually a step backwards in many regards. After she resigned, she tweeted that social mobility was more important to her than her Ministerial career. That seems a strange argument, as running the DWP surely has as much potential to tackle social immobility as does the Department of Education. She obviously wanted to stay at Education, but Secretaries of State do not always get to choose their posts and her refusal to move will be seen as selfish by many Conservative Party members. Her departure means that the PM has another Remain voting voice from a Remain voting constituency on the backbenches, and the manner of her departure means that Greening is unlikely to be quiet. She may fancy a tip at the leadership herself in a couple of years’ time, and so it will be interesting to see what issues she focuses on now out of Government. Alternatively, might she consider a run at Mayor of London in 2020?

New Faces

With few people leaving the Cabinet – McLoughlin sacked, Brokenshire resigning for health reasons, Greening resigning, and Green gone pre-Christmas over ‘porn-gate’ – there was little opportunity to promote new faces into the Cabinet. The only ‘new’ faces at the table are Damian Hinds at Education, and Matt Hancock at DCMS, the latter proving that there are still roles for ‘FoGs’ (Friends of George). Esther McVey had attended Cabinet before in the 2015 Parliament and Brandon Lewis had attended Cabinet as immigration Minister. Claire Perry (another FoG) and Caroline Nokes have been given the right to attend Cabinet in their Ministerial roles at BEIS and Immigration respectively, but are not full members of the Cabinet.

The stand out appointment is that of Hinds. Since his election in 2010 he has spent most of his time focussing on education issues. He is a grammar school boy like the PM, although he is on record as opposing the expansion of grammar schools in future. Like Greening, he has a major interest in issues of social mobility, Chairing the APPG on the subject from 2010, and supports apprenticeships and greater focus on skills training. Whilst not a massive presence in the media to-date, he is one to watch for the future.

The size of the Cabinet

It is worth noting that the number of Ministers attending Cabinet has now reached the extraordinary number of 32, to put that into perspective, that is nearly 10% of the parliamentary Conservative Party. Allowing more Ministers to ‘attend’ Cabinet seems to be a device to be able to claim it is more diverse. We now have 10 women out of 32 attending Cabinet, as opposed to 8 out of 30 before the reshuffle. Can a Cabinet of that size be managed well or function effectively?

Conservative HQ

Finally, it is worth noting the scale of change at Conservative Central Office. A new Party Chair – May loyalist, Brandon Lewis – a high profile Deputy Chair in James Cleverley –  and an amazing additional nine Vice Chairs, making 13 Vice Chairs in total, with responsibility with various tasks, from community engagement, to policy formulation, to future candidate selection. May clearly wants an overhaul of CCHQ and the election machinery. Whether those new appointees will be able to overcome the Party bureaucracy and be given control of budgets will remain to be seen. And here lies a problem. If the new appointees are to actually make a difference, they will need to remain in post for some time. Yet the young and ambitious will want to have a Ministerial job asap. In fact, it seems a waste of talent putting the likes of James Cleverley, Kemi Badenoch and Maria Caulfield in the Party HQ when they could be learning the Ministerial ropes and communicating Government policy in proper Ministerial jobs. James Cleverly in particular – whilst an excellent campaigner and communicator who will excel in the role of Deputy Chair of the Party – might feel a little hard done by missing out on the first rung of the Ministerial ladder.