As the sun sets on the latest Cabinet reshuffle, it’s difficult to describe the last 48 hours as anything other than pretty inauspicious ones for Downing Street, for the minority Conservative government, and for Theresa May’s premiership.
The national press has been pretty scathing in their assessment of the Prime Minister’s efforts to reshuffle her deck, particularly when bigger things were expected. Instead of a Cabinet infused with new blood and new ideas, Mrs May ended yesterday with much of her senior team in exactly the same place they started the day. There has not been the anticipated promotion of ‘up and comers’ within the Tory ranks, nor has been any redress to the gender and background balance of the Cabinet. The decisions announced by Downing Street have been viewed at best as small ‘c’ conservative, and at worst as a demonstration of Prime Ministerial weakness.
No-one really expected any of the so-called ‘great offices of state’ to change hands. Sure, there had been some speculation Boris could be moved, but that dissipated quickly. But there were some moves that mightn’t have been considered bankers, but certainly appeared likely. Jeremy Hunt seemed to be on his way from Health. Chris Grayling looked to be on borrowed time at Transport. There was more than a whiff of suspicion that Greg Clark could be asked to pack up his office at BEIS.
Instead, all of the above remained in post. The high-profile casualty of the day was Justine Greening at Education, replaced by Damian Hinds. OK, Karen Bradley moved to the Northern Ireland office with Matt Hancock taking the reins at DCMS, but that was a reactive move to the sad news that outgoing Secretary of State James Brokenshire requires major surgery. Otherwise, it was largely more of the same – except for a bit of rebranding with Sajid Javid’s job title expanded to include housing, which he was responsible for anyway, and Jeremy Hunt’s title changed to include social care (which he was also already in charge of).
To pull something of a silver lining from the cloud now hovering over Downing Street, there is at least a measure of continuity for the likes of business in keeping Greg Clark at BEIS. As there is keeping Gavin Williamson at the MoD – although it surely would have been hugely controversial to move him after such a short period in the role. And the additions of housing and social care to Sajid Javid’s and Jeremy Hunt’s job titles will mean increased emphasis for those essential policy areas then that bit of rebranding will prove to be a fruitful exercise.
But fundamentally, the reshuffle appears a missed opportunity for an increasingly embattled Prime Minister.
By losing Justine Greening, who refused a move to DWP, Mrs May risks creating a potentially outspoken critic (a lesson unlearned from when Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan were removed from the government benches). And by keeping the likes of Mr Clark, Chris Grayling and Jeremy Hunt in post, the Prime Minister is at risk as seen as being led by senior party members too big to sack or move, which undermines her authority. The mere suggestion Jeremy Hunt was able to ‘persuade’ Mrs May to keep him at the Department of Health is damaging. One would expect an emboldened Prime Minister to offer Mr Hunt a new role, but make it clear it was a take it or leave it offer, as apparently was the case with Ms Greening.
What does this mean in a broader context? First and foremost, the Prime Minister’s authority – including over her own Cabinet – would appear to be limited. But, equally, there doesn’t appear any immediate threat to Mrs May’s position. Part of that may be that possible leadership challengers are unwilling to throw their hat in the ring at such a difficult time. But, in the absence of a leadership challenge, Mrs May’s government continues in place but arguably without the same authority and impetus a more definitive reshuffle could have lent, particularly in the absence of a parliamentary majority.
That in turn has implications at home and abroad. Mrs May must continue to negotiate (whether in person or deferring to Oliver Robbins and David Davis) Brexit, but with European leaders seeing further evidence of the fragility of her premiership. Opposition parties at home can be emboldened to challenge the Prime Minister’s domestic agenda. And Downing Street has largely missed the opportunity to bring in fresh perspectives and fresh ideas to address issues ranging from slowed econonic growth to the NHS winter crisis.