Finally Theresa May seemed to have gripped her Government as she undertook the much needed reshuffle, promising to effectively press the reset button after months of scandals and mishaps. This was an opportunity for Mrs May to establish herself as the strong leader she so desperately wishes to portray, and to inject some much needed energy into a tired old machine. Or so many people thought…
Less than 24 hours later the PM will still be reeling from this morning’s headlines. ‘Shambolic reshuffle’ leads The Times, whereas ‘Night of the blunt stiletto’ is reported on the front page of The Telegraph. Mrs May will undoubtedly be disappointed that once again her actions have failed to win the support of the media, who have instead reported on the incompetence of her operation, thereby marking the reshuffle as just another PR disaster for Mrs May.
Reshuffles are tricky affairs and hard to pull-off successfully. As this latest attempt has shown, thorough planning is required and when in a position of weakness, key players should be consulted in advance to avoid any unexpected refusals. Most notably, it was Jeremy Hunt who appeared to thwart the PM’s plans by flatly refusing a move to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Not only did his actions threaten to throw the whole thing off course, they further undermined Mrs May revealing her to be a Prime Minister that is unable to impose her will upon her own Cabinet.
Speculation, leaks, and briefing from Downing Street, also remove the element of surprise, which is often necessary if only to prevent plotting and lobbying from within the current team. Again, this appears to have been overlooked by Mrs May, and with news of an imminent reshuffle first surfacing last week, current ministers had a whole weekend to firmly establish their positions.
In a miscalculated moved, the PM went even further by confirming the reshuffle during a pre-record on Marr this Saturday. As a result, the papers were in full speculation mode on Sunday and Monday, with headlines gunning for members of the current administration, and positioning Mrs May in a lose-lose position ahead of any announcements.
However, as the dust begins to settle, it appears that for many, this kind of preparation would have been wholly unnecessary, and as things stand, the reshuffle has produced relatively minor changes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly Phillip Hammond, Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and David Davis are keeping their jobs, and although Patrick McLoughlin leaves as Conservative Party Chairman, after spectacularly losing the last general election, and a shambolic party conference, perhaps this should have been viewed as inevitable. This job now goes to Brandon Lewis, who with his brash and no-nonsense style, will take a tough approach to reinvigorating the grassroots and party machine. Jeremy Hunt’s refusal means that both he and Greg Clark will remain in their current posts, as well as Sajid Javid albeit with a slightly tweaked title.
Justice Secretary, David Lidington, and one of the few Cabinet members who Mrs May is said to privately rate, has now been promoted as the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, effectively becoming her Number 2 in all but title. As a former Europe minister and ardent Remainder, Lidington will have a key role in the Brexit process, leading negotiations with the devolved administrations. This will undoubtedly cause much annoyance amongst many Brexiteers, although they may be placated by the speculation of a ‘No Deal’ minister, demonstrating that Mrs May is serious in her commitment to take a tougher stance.
Some excitement appears to have been injected by Justine Greening, who has opted to quit rather than move from Education to Work and Pensions. She will quickly join the ranks of reluctant Brexiteers on the back benches, and will no doubt look to exact her revenge on the PM. The DWP role now instead goes to Esther McVey, despite her being deeply unpopular within the Department previously, which ultimately saw her lose her seat in 2015. As the Universal Credit roll out now happens, the PM will be looking for her to be ready to grasp complex policy and deliver without hiccups.
As we mark day two of the reshuffle process, and with further appointments limited to junior ministerial roles, in the end it would appear that Mrs May has lost her bottle. Those hoping for a full scale overhaul of the Government in an attempt to change the course of Mrs May’s so far lacklustre performance will likely be left disappointed. At what could have been a defining moment for the PM to assert her political strength, we see just another demonstration of her weakness.
Katie Thurston-Smith is an account director at Four Public Affairs. For further insights into the Government or how these latest developments may affect you, please contact her on Katie.Thurston-Smith@FourCommunications.com