9 Jan 2018

Analysis from day 2 of the cabinet reshuffle

One friend of Andrea Leadsom says the Leader of the House was purposely made to sweat all day yesterday waiting to be reappointed to her role. It doesn’t feel like Mrs May is ready to press the re-set button on that relationship.

And there’s a flick of the tail in the treatment of Jo Johnson today as Mrs May reshuffles the middle and junior ranks of the government. The Universities Minister was very happy in that job but upset No. 10 with his support for Toby Young to the Office for Students. It wasn’t Mr Johnson’s first offence in No. 10’s eyes. He was not a fan of the package of new policies announced by the PM at Conference last October which included raising the income level that triggers student loan repayments from £21000 to £25000 and freezing tuition fees at £9250 a year. Mr Johnson has been sent to the Transport Department and also now has special responsibilities for running the Tories’ London local elections effort this May which could be a poisoned chalice.

Mrs May’s irritation with Justine Greening had been mounting over some time. She and her closest advisers felt that Ms Greening didn’t “get” their agenda on standards and school reform. They loved her deputy, Nick Gibb, but thought Ms Greening emoted about opportunities without coming up with policies to give effect to that. Ms Greening hopes to disprove that, campaigning on social opportunity issues from the backbenches.

Iain Duncan Smith, who is regularly briefed by No. 10, has been explaining that this reshuffle is all about road-testing the next Cabinet, bringing on a new generation of MPs from different backgrounds, some of whom might be in the Cabinet in two years’ time. But some close to Mrs May believe that finishing off Phase 1 Brexit negotiations before the Christmas break gave her more authority than she realised and she should have used this moment to be more radical in shaking up her team.

One other striking feature of the reshuffle is the progress of the FOGs, Friends of Gavin.  As an MP before he lost his Croydon seat in last summer’s election, Gavin Barwell (now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff), bonded with a gaggle of fellow Tory MPs. They’d socialise in the Commons and away from Westminster.

His closest parliamentary friend was probably Julian Smith, promoted to Chief Whip in November of last year. Also in the group is Damian Hinds, yesterday promoted to the Cabinet as Education Secretary. Others in the gang include Alok Sharma (today promoted to Damian Hinds’ old job as Employment Minister) and Steven Barclay (today promoted to Minister of State for Health and Social Care). Another member of the group is Mel Stride, already promoted to Paymaster General in the Treasury after last year’s General Election.

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One reader comment

  1. H Statton says:

    George Osbourne’s clinical appraisal of Theresa May’s governance: “You have to hand it to this prime minister: she’s given us the hat-trick of the worst reshuffle, the worst party conference speech and the worst manifesto in modern history.” Of course, let’s not forget the U-turns, the Brexit omnishambles and that week in November – ministers behaving badly – Michael Fallon, Priti Patel and Boris Johnson (again).

    Thing is, who would want to take on the top job right now? Anyone sizing it up is probably hoping May will self-destruct, that way they get to keep their hands clean. No-one wants a poisoned chalice so they’ll all smile like crocodiles and bide their time.

    As the ebb and flow of May’s strength turns inexorably towards frailty it exposes the mud shoal of big fish; an underworld inhabited by the likes of Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, Philip Hammond, David Davis and Boris. With the Brexit clock ticking it didn’t really take a 36 hour stretch in a hospital corridor to work out these fish would not take a battering. Even Andrea Leadsom managed to hang on as Leader of the House of Commons, a post it was strongly rumoured between Christmas and New Year she would lose.

    The NHS crisis will not be solved overnight and as it stands, vital signs are not looking good. It doesn’t really matter whether Hunt keeps his job or not (for now). Following last week’s apology for the Department of Health’s fallings, which was espoused by May, I wasn’t surprised at Hunt’s staying put. One junior doctor aired his grievances two years ago: “Obstetrics and Gynaecology isn’t my field, but I know a Hunt when I see one.” However, I am surprised at his purview being expanded to include social care. One amusing gaffe from yesterday was that of Tory MP Andrew Bridgen who enthusiastically praised Jeremy Corbyn’s work as Health Secretary!

    Today Ian Duncan Smith asserted “junior ministerial changes will let May do proper cabinet reshuffle later this year.” Someone remarked yesterday May has ‘the Midas touch in reverse.’ Has the recessive Tory gene expressed itself again as it did during John Major’s time with his ‘non-Midas touch.’

    There were some embarrassing technical difficulties yesterday – botched tweets for example. One tweet revealed Chris Grayling as the new party chairman only for it to be announced later Brandon Lewis had been given the job. Number 10 then had to delete this update as it referenced Lewis’s “porfolio.” Oops.

    As Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael put it: “You have to hand it to the Conservatives, messing up your own reshuffle takes a whole new level of incompetence.”

    Jo Johnson has been ushered away from Department of Education after appointing the self-proclaimed ‘toadmeister’, Toby Young to university regulator. Chair of the Commons education committee Robert Halfon said on Radio 4’s Today programme, “If we are to stand up as the Conservative party for what is right”, “we also have to accept when we have made a mistake [in appointing Toby Young]”. This view was echoed by Sir Anthony Seldon who said Young’s appointment was “utterly unacceptable.” May was “not at all impressed” by Young’s historic remarks. Not impressed?! Which of the 50,000 offensive [now deleted] tweets touched a nerve?

    Esther McVey struck me as an interesting pick for DWP Secretary given her supervision of the Personal Independence Payments (PIP) assessments assigned to Atos and Capita, while Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Disabilities. Her department heeded advice from the two unqualified subcontractors over its own medical experts which is why it’s still a glorious mess.

    McVey has also hailed the use of food banks like Jacob Rees-Mogg who said on LBC radio he was impressed by the generosity of the British public in providing help to those in need. I would kindly remind Rees-Mogg, looking after the welfare state is the government’s job. This Moggy was the only one not to acquire a Downing Street position. The other cats retain their brief.

    I was stunned May wanted to move Justine Greening as Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, a post she has held since 2016, to the DWP. Maybe Greening’s anaemic support of May’s plan to increase the number of grammar schools didn’t go down too well. Widely popular in education circles her loss will be felt. Melissa Benn writes in today’s Guardian her “departure is bad news for education and for independent-minded women in Tory politics.” So, May can add another name to the list of resignations which is growing monthly it seems.

    Theresa May seems to be melting into the ground like the witch from the Wizard of Oz… it’s not been a good day at the office.

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