Walter Bagehot in The English Constitution argued that the power of patronage was the Prime Minister’s most useful tool. Through hiring and firing, Cabinet reshuffles are an important way for Prime Ministers to shake-up their top team, clear out the stables and stamp their authority over misbehaving Ministers.
Clearly, Theresa May has skipped reading her Bagehot. Yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle served only to expose her enduring weakness as Prime Minister.
The immediate reason for tweaking her top team was the departure of Damian Green. However, following a strong end to 2017, including the successful conclusion of the first phase of Brexit talks and a quietly effective Autumn Budget, May had an opportunity to give fresh impetus to her party and promote some new talent. This would bring dynamism to her administration, and present a more youthful, diverse image to the country.
In the end, only four new figures entered Cabinet, two of whom having previously attended before. Esther McVey became Work and Pensions Secretary and Damian Hinds was promoted to Education Secretary, while Matt Hancock returned to Cabinet as Secretary for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with Brandon Lewis as Party Chairman and Minister without Portfolio.
The headlines were made not by dynamic new entrants, but the established figures who remained or resigned. The Prime Minister attempted to reshuffle both Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark, who are both believed to have flatly refused to move. The Prime Minister was simply too weak to exercise her power of patronage; she simply can’t afford another rebellious backbencher with a grievance.
This luxury was unavailable to Justine Greening, who after refusing a move to the Department for Work and Pensions, was forced to resign from the Government altogether. Many Tory MPs have expressed frustration that the PM allowed Hunt and Clark – both pale, male and arguably stale – to overrule her, while a Greening, a northern female Tory who was widely admired for promoting LGBT+ rights, was dismissed.
More popular were the Prime Minister’s appointments to the leadership of the Conservative Party. The well-liked Brandon Lewis replaced Patrick McLoughlin as Party Chair, with his former PPS James Cleverly becoming Deputy Chair. A number of younger and more diverse MPs were appointed Vice-Chairs with various briefs, including the hotly tipped Kemi Badenoch. The fact that these appointments were announced before any top Cabinet jobs is an olive branch to those in the party who haven’t forgiven May for a disastrous 2017.
The subsequent changes to the junior Ministerial ranks have been received far more positively. Popular figures like Suella Fernandes and Rishi Sunak have been given government roles, having both cut their teeth as PPS to senior Ministers. Lucy Frazer’s promotion to the Ministry of Justice and Oliver Dowden’s to the Cabinet Office are also considered smart appointments. Nevertheless, eyebrows were raised at sideways moves for Dominic Raab and Jo Johnson, both rising stars on opposite sides of the Brexit divide, while key departments such as the Ministry of Justice now have brand new teams who will have to grasp complex EU withdrawal legislation very quickly.
Given that ‘Plan A’ to reshuffle her top team went so disastrously wrong, the lower-order shake up has averted disaster for the PM. However it has reminded all in Westminster that Theresa May severely lacks authority, and is in thrall to even the inconspicuous figures in her Cabinet.
After such disorder was caused by attempting to reshuffle middling Ministers, May will be thankful that she didn’t touch the mercurial likes of Boris Johnson or Philip Hammond. Bagehot wrote that “the greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do”. For the stability of her Government, it’s probably best that she has skipped her Bagehot for now.