Theresa May, set about reshuffling her cabinet today, in an attempt to refresh her government and strengthen its position, in order to be more adequate in balancing Brexit and the demands of domestic policy. In doing so, the Prime Minister has provoked more questions over her authority and leadership; in particular, when Justine Greening was sacked from Education and turned down the offer of Department for Work and Pensions, before quitting from the cabinet.
To help improve social care, the government has merged the social care brief with the Health Secretary’s role, in perhaps the most impactful move of the day. Jeremy Hunt, remaining in his role, will now take up the title as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. A crucial merging that many see as vital to improving two difficult areas that are intertwined.
More so than many of her predecessors, as a result of her weak position, the PM has had to reform internal failures within the Conservative Party as well as those of her own government, whilst being wary of causing backbench rebellions or upsetting warring groups over Brexit.
Brandon Lewis appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party:
To address those internal party falures Brandon Lewis was appointed as Chairman of the Conservative Party, replacing Sir Patrick McLoughlin who has served in the role since May appointed him in 2016. Sir Patrick received criticism from Tory MPs after the failure in the last general election where he was blamed, in part, on the lack of grassroots infrastructure and social media reach — all tasks that CCHQ were managing.
With these failings in mind Brandon Lewis’ role will be focused around trying to get the Tory Party in a position that will allow it to fight Labour in the next general election. The two main areas of focus will be increasing the level of membership, particularly among ‘active’ members who will doorstep and distribute leaflets in a campaign, and increase the reach of the party on social media. After the election there has been a clear effort amongst Tory MPs to publish and share more relatable and shareable (short and snappy) content.
This will be a tough challenge against Labour’s 552,000 members and professional social media campaign, which ensured that fox hunting was the most talked about issue on social media in the last election campaign.
Brandon Lewis became MP at the 2010 election, as member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth, and has since served as Minister for Housing and Planning, Minister for Policing and the Fire Services and until today Minister of State for Immigration, where he has won praise as a ‘strong’ performer in interviews and as having a ‘common touch’.
This appointment will have an impact that will most likely outlast Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister. The result of the next general election will be influenced by the level of progress Brandon Lewis makes in turning the Conservative Party from its shambolic efforts in 2017 to win voters over the most fraught and important of battlegrounds; social media.
It is with some irony therefore that twitter exposed a lack of communication and confusion between CCHQ and Downing Street when the Tory Party tweeted that Chris Grayling had instead become chairman. The tweet was deleted 27 seconds later and with it Grayling’s role as chairman. According to some reports there was an ‘internal pushback’ from staffers to his appointment. Some also accused May of appointing him on the basis of loyalty to her rather than for his ability.
No big moves at the top
It is this prism of loyalty that best explains the lack of movement among the big names at the top of the cabinet. Despite growing frustrations towards Boris Johnson after a series of errors, David Davies reported to have been ‘sidelined’ from Brexit negotiations and worsening relations between the Chancellor and Number 10.
Amber Rudd, who has been widely praised by May’s team, is beginning to be seen as a possible successor to the PM and remains at the Home Office.
The New Titles
Jeremy Hunt: will now take on the publication of the government’s green paper on care and support for older people, rather than it being the responsibility of the Cabinet Office.
Sajid Javid: the Communities Secretary has had the title of Housing added to his responsibilities.
Greg Clarke: the Business Secretary was in Downing Street for nearly an hour. Despite reports of Number 10’s critical opinion of his work and plans to fire him, he has remained in his role. Some critics of May have called this lack of sacking a sign of her weakness.
David Lidington: After Damien Green’s resignation there was a clear gap at the heart of the operations within the government. Justice Secretary David Lidington has been moved to the Cabinet Office. There, he will fulfil the roles of negotiating with the devolved administrations and overseeing Brexit negotiations with parties such as the DUP and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, and the SNP in Scotland. Although, he will not take the title of Deputy Prime Minister.
David Gauke: Gauke who is a lawyer, has filled the role left by Lidington at Justice. Previously, he has struggled at Department of Work and Pensions over criticism of the handling of the extending roll-out of universal credit.
James Brokenshire: replaced by Karen Bradley as Northern Ireland Secretary after he resigned because of health reasons. Bradley will be inheriting a difficult situation in N.Ireland, with Stormont still in deadlock over the DUP’s role in supporting the minority government in the Commons.
The New Young Faces
It is understood that tomorrow we will see more younger Conservative MPs being promoted to lower ministerial roles. However, the appointment of the popular Brexit MP James Cleverly as Deputy Chairman of the party will help appease the calls for a more refreshed cabinet.
Other shuffles within the reshuffle:
- Karen Bradley moved from Culture to Northern Ireland
- Matt Hancock, after previously being demoted by May in 2016, has been rewarded for his commitment to Digital Brief and promoted to Culture Secretary
- Newly-appointed Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson will remain at MOD
- Liam Fox to stay as Secretary for International Trade.
- Chris Grayling remains at Transport
- David Mundell stays as Scottish Secretary
May is aiming to refresh the look and feel of her government after a difficult time since the election.
Beneath the surface of all the sackings and appointments lies a precarious game of chess; one wrong move and all the pieces will fall.
One of the most sensitive areas for Downing Street to be wary of is the loyalty of the party and ministers. Without definitive backing from the public for May’s leadership, once the party’s support goes so will May. It is this reality that explains the lack of movement at the top, with Boris, Davies, and Hammond all remaining in their roles.
Perhaps reflecting her vulnerability even more, was not sacking Greg Clarke from Business.
May has now also inadvertently gained an additional remain backbench MP in the guise of Greening — someone with the potential to cause damage to the government from the backbenches.
To add a different dynamic to this reshuffle the PM has had to balance internal problems with the issues affecting the whole country. Tonight the view from the party is that she has succeeded in helping to set the Conservatives on a path to election victory, through the appointments of Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly.
Despite the focus on internal affairs, it is very unlikely that May will be brought down by party management. Instead, it will be the outcome of domestic policies that will influence the electorate.
The merging of Health and Social Care and the addition of Housing to Sajid Javid’s title, all suggest positive moves to addressing two of the biggest problems the country faces.
Two further areas Downing Street aims to target in the next year are education and environment. Gove stays at environment, after huge success, and Hinds is tipped to be moved to education (replacing Justine Greening). No doubt Downing Street will be happy that they have succeeded in appointing strong teams in these areas of focus. Let’s just hope rhetoric doesn’t replace real action and change.
Voters are not as ignorant as supposed. For this reason, despite the buzz around Westminster, May will need to address their concerns through policy rather than reshuffles if she wants to win the game.