Nothing has changed: The reshuffle that never took off
This reshuffle was seen in No.10 as an opportunity for the Prime Minster to re-establish her authority and bring newer, more diverse faces into Cabinet who would be better placed to deliver important domestic priorities and crucially, communicate them to voters.
Proposed moves were widely briefed in advance. Ministers in key domestic ministries were under-performing and the first edition of that day’s Evening Standard confidently declared: ‘May wields the knife’. Yet, by 10pm there were just two new faces at full Cabinet level.
A faltering reshuffle
Rather than wielding the knife, May’s attempted reshuffle faltered as one Cabinet Minister turned down a move and resigned, while others convinced the Prime Minister that they should in fact remain rather than be moved to a different department. What was designed to be an opportunity to re-establish her authority became a signifier of the inherent weakness of May’s position as she failed to deliver the changes she wanted. This reshuffle reaffirmed that rather than leading her MPs, May is led by them.
The lack of movement at Cabinet level also meant that another key aim of the reshuffle, to promote younger, more diverse MPs to the top tier of Government, faltered somewhat. Promotions for the likes of Anne Milton and Dominic Raab didn’t materialise, and this has implications for the future of the Conservative Party. Potential leaders ideally need a platform at Cabinet level to make their case and a 2019 leadership election, after the UK officially leaves the EU, is a strong possibility.
In some crucial policy areas there have been odd moves as well. Switching foreign policy expert Rory Stewart from FCO/DFID to Justice, may not be the best use of his talents. In addition, in a post-Grenfell world, moving Alok Sharma from the housing brief at a very important time for the sector (and replacing him with Dominic Raab) will be perceived badly in some quarters. Jo Johnson’s departure from his Universities post after steering through HE reform came as a surprise. It is difficult to wonder if this was planned, or a kneejerk response to the calamitous appointment of Toby Young to the Office for Students, and Johnson’s vociferous defence of him before he resigned the post.
Despite the headlines greeting it as a shambles, the reshuffle was not all catastrophe. There has been much more progress in the junior ranks, for example, and it has led to a more diverse Government overall . There is genuine talent in the 2015 intake and roles in Government for the likes of Lucy Frazer, Rishi Sunak, Oliver Dowden and Jo Churchill highlight that there are positives to be taken from this reshuffle.
One move of substance was the significant change at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, announced ahead of ministerial appointments. No 10 is sensitive to the need to reinvigorate the Conservative Party’s campaigning in the face of Labour’s charge. The appointment of Brandon Lewis as Chairman and James Cleverly as his deputy is a sign that this is being taken seriously. Expect to see Lewis and Cleverly in the media much more, taking the fight to Labour.
Overall, however, while some stability at Cabinet level will be welcomed by business, it is difficult to argue that this reshuffle delivered what it was meant to achieve. Reshuffles are always used to assert No. 10’s authority and inject fresh energy into a Government. It has done neither. The Prime Minister’s weakness remains a real issue ahead of a challenging political year, which has already begun with Labour landing some significant blows on the NHS and rail fares. The uncertainty around Theresa May goes on.