Prime minister Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle was intended to reboot her government onto a stronger, more united footing for the new year. The timing was intended to project a positive direction forward after May’s bitter task of having to force her acting deputy, Damian Green to resign. There was hope that the PM could actually refresh her cabinet, however, few expected such a feeble shuffle of some of her least well-known ministers. 

Even more surprising was the revelation that May is much less in charge of her ministers than we might have previously thought. Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, faced the PM down and passionately refused to move to a new role as business secretary. His bonus prize for refusing to move was the additional responsibility of heading the new, renamed Department of Health and Social Care. Education secretary, Justine Greening, resigned after refusing to become the new Work and Pensions secretary. Her position as Education secretary went to Damian Hinds. Unable to impose her will upon her leadership team, the prime minister had to abandon her plans to re-arrange her cabinet. This misfiring of her reshuffle serves to further illuminate the weak position that May still finds herself in.

No, Prime Minister

There was speculation that a position would be created to prepare for the event of not reaching a deal with Brussels. This mythological “No Deal” minister would be a temporary cabinet role, without having full membership in the cabinet.  The notion infuriated Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister for the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable. As it turned out, the phrase “no deal, Prime Minister,” was closer to the actual events that played out yesterday at number 10. A government source termed the reshuffle: “the night of the blunt stiletto.” This was a mocking comparison with Harold Macmillan’s abruptly replacing seven ministers in what was known as Macmillan’s “Night of the long knives.” 

As for crashing out of the EU without a deal, her appointing former Justice Secretary David Lidington to Damian Green’s role, suggests the government will seek a closer alignment with Europe. Lidington is a pro-European MP who will be May’s right-hand man, although it is unlikely he will fill the void left by long-time ally, Damian Green. Even his title reflects this: His position is termed Cabinet office and Duchy of Lancaster, rather than Secretary of State and acting deputy, as Green was known to be.

Although the government called the reshuffle a “refresh of her top team,” the most powerful members of her cabinet are proving a mighty match for May’s leadership. Perhaps the PM’s other ministers are feeling emboldened by the fact that the prime minister cannot outmaneuver her strongest cabinet members Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond, David Davis and Michael Gove? 

Tomorrow’s Tories

Former Conservative Party Chairman Sir Patrick McLoughlin finally stood down, after criticism for the way he handled last year’s failed snap election, that cost the Tories their majority. Brandon Lewis is now the Conservative Party chairman and minister without portfolio, with James Cleverly serving as his deputy party chairman. Lewis is being rewarded for his loyal support of May’s leadership and for uniting Conservative MPs behind the prime minister. Although he is an experienced campaigner, his social media skills, especially when promoting Great Yarmouth, don’t seem equal to the task of overhauling the party’s social media operation. His deputy James Cleverly seems far more savvy on social media, given his presence in the media and on Twitter. 

Brandon said today that he is “very focused” on increasing his party’s membership and did not dispute an assertion that membership figures are around 70,000. Labour, meanwhile, has over half a million members. Lewis disagreed with a suggestion that the Conservative party is “in a mess,” by saying, “not quite.” He was positive about today’s reshuffle of junior ministers, saying: “You’ll see a really good breath of fresh air coming in with some really good people coming in.” Of course, breathing in requires exhaling, just as people coming in means others must go.

Junior shake-up

No 10 has described two ministers as having resigned and two as having “left the government,” which is a polite euphemism for having been sacked. The newest to resign are John Hayes, former transport minister and Philip Dunne, who was health minister. Removed from office were Robert Goodwill, education minister and Mark Garnier, international trade minister.

Sam Gyimah has been promoted from junior minister at the justice department, to universities minister. He replaces Jo Johnson, Boris’ brother, who was moved to the position of transport minister. Other ministers were not moved up into higher paying positions, but rather sideways, as is the case for former housing minister, Alok Sharma, who is now minister of State for Employment. This change will highlight the PM’s propensity to shuffle some posts with a nearly annual frequency since she will now be appointing her third housing minister since she took office in July 2016. 

Final results

The government will have effectively increased the numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs so that they have come closer to reflecting the population of the UK. That will make for an improved optic, an image that is more in step with modern society. The prime minister’s failure to delver the reshuffling she had intended to is a blow she cannot afford, however. In this attempt to demonstrate her authority, she exposed her political vulnerability. 

May will also be embarrassed over journalist Toby Young resigning his post at the Office for Students board only two days after she supported his staying. She had said he should remain in his post with the higher education watchdog, provided he cease making offensive tweets and penning misogynistic articles. He stepped down after eight days, saying his appointment had “become a distraction.” Given that Boris and Jo Johnson, as well as Michael Grove had praised Young, May and her party were accused of Tory cronyism in their defence of him staying in his position.

Has the government shaken off the failures of 2017, or simply changed their perceived party image? Critics are pointing out that after the lacklustre shuffle, nothing will have significantly changed. The prime minister’s fragile authority over her party has clearly followed her into the new year. The Pound was weaker today, after details of the confusion in the reshuffle emerged. With tough Brexit negotiations still ahead, it is unnerving to see that the prime minister is still not better at negotiating within her own Cabinet.