19 Jul 2016

Inside Theresa May’s first Cabinet meeting

Theresa May’s first Cabinet meeting had a more discursive quality to it than some of David Cameron’s. Mr Cameron had promised to respect Cabinet government but the dynamics of some of the relationships at that table meant it dissipated quite quickly.

Today, the Chancellor Philip Hammond talked about the state of the economy and quite a few Cabinet ministers chipped in afterwards with their own suggestions of what was concerning and what needed to be done. It’s not something that tended to happen if George Osborne opined on the economy. Few would’ve thought it worth their necks to chip in with counter suggestions. Today though there were contributions on the need to reassure the markets, reassure migrant workers, make sure student numbers don’t suffer, offer continuity of EU funding where possible and much talk on the productivity agenda and the skills gap.

David Davis explained that the first job of his Brexit Department would be to take time consulting sectors as well as devolved institutions, on what was wanted from the negotiations with the EU 27 members.
At the High Court, the government’s lawyer signalled that the intention was not to trigger Article 50 kicking off formal negotiations before the end of the year. Mr Davis is believed to be telling friends that February or March 2017 “feels about right” with a view to the UK being out of Europe in 2019. The EU 27 have originally talked about expecting Article 50 very soon after a new PM was in post. More recently some have acknowledged that a summer of thinking might be allowed and then an Autumn triggering. No-one’s been saying they’re up for 2017.

A government source said the view of some ministers was that with Schengen issues, Italian banks on the brink, a referendum pending in Italy, elections approaching in France and any number of other plates spinning precariously, the EU won’t be minded to get tough with the UK and precipitate another crisis mood it can’t guarantee will end happily.

Tomorrow Theresa May meets up with Chancellor Merkel. It’s thought the two were introduced at a Security Summit in Malta in November 2015, but this will be their first proper conversation, talks before a press conference in Berlin, followed by talks over dinner. They are both daughters of clergymen and both remain devout. Their styles are similar to some eyes: deliberative, low-key, eschewing exotic language, giving off a quiet authority. The difference being that Chancellor Merkel is for some people’s money the reason that the EU still exists. Theresa May is the beneficiary of one of the most lethal blows ever inflicted on it.

A footnote on the reshuffle from last week. One government source tells me Theresa May was about as brutal as was possible when she sacked George Osborne. We knew their meeting was brief but I understand that Mrs May critiqued George Osborne’s time in office to his face. I’m told she said that he had over-promised and under-delivered as Chancellor. She said there would be no exchange of letters that allowed him the dignity of pretending he had resigned. He was sacked as the calls went out for his replacement to come to Downing Street and had to sneak out the back to avoid a humiliating photograph at what for six years had been his front door.

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