Liam Watson assesses Theresa May’s refusal to yield in the face of political injury
“‘Tis but a scratch”: this week’s Cabinet reshuffle shows Theresa May is the Black Knight of British politics.
Since the General Election, Theresa May’s political career has, much like Monty Python’s Black Knight, taken injury after injury yet, somehow, refused to yield. After a disappointing and surprising general election result, the long and difficult handling of the Brexit Bill in parliament and multiple cabinet resignations, most politicians might have made a new year’s cabinet reshuffle as smooth and uneventful as they could. But not our Theresa. Oh no, the PM seems hell-bent on ensuring that June 2017 to June 2018 goes down in her personal history as her annus horribilis, with a reshuffle that has a lot more to it than meets the eye. May branded her new cabinet as one that looks “more like the country it serves”, hoping to give off the impression that she had created a cabinet more representative of the multicultural Britain of the 21st century. However, in fact 34% of Cabinet members were privately educated, with nearly three quarters male and 96% white.
But this is more than a failed PR stunt, as Jeremy Corbyn branded it. No, this is a failed PR stunt and a failure to give even the faintest impression that Theresa May is leading her party, let alone the country. Justine Greening, now ex-Secretary of State for Education, flat out refused a move to the Department of Work & Pensions, instead resigning entirely from government. This is while Jeremy Hunt, less than a week after the NHS postponed all non-urgent surgery, managed to not only keep the health brief, but get a promotion and take on responsibility for social care as well. When you’ve lost your party’s majority, taken a machete to your approval rating, had to sack your best mate for downloading pornography at work and suffered humiliating parliamentary defeats, the last thing you want to do is let your subordinates make you look weak.
“… most politicians might have made a new year’s cabinet reshuffle as smooth and uneventful as they could. But not our Theresa.”
The top positions — Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Brexit minister — were never in doubt. The aim of all this was to brand the Tories as the ‘real’ party of the many, and make it as representative as May could without compromising ability. However if you’re a leader trying to maintain your own position, you need to get rid of some of the political bruisers who could cause some damage and replace them with rising stars. Not only would this make those rising stars loyal to you, but it establishes a clear difference in seniority: For the duration of Brexit negotiations, Cabinet needs to project an image of unity, and it’s far easier to boss about people who are still settling into their role and are less experienced politicians.
This reshuffle was not only a move to propagate a myth of greater representation in Cabinet, but it was a move to consolidate the PM’s position, which is tenuous at best. That was proven to no end by Jeremy Hunt and Justine Greening, who tore Downing Street’s plans for them to shreds. Although this was pretty embarrassing for the Government, don’t expect anything major to happen as a result. It is well known that the only thing keeping Greening’s misgivings about May’s grammar school policy quiet was joint Cabinet responsibility. That’s not a factor anymore, so now the PM has two female ex-Cabinet ministers with Nicky Morgan and Justine Greening on the backbenches to contend with. Greening in particular should be expected to cause May all sorts of headaches as she represents the marginal, very pro-Europe constituency of Putney.
This reshuffle is but another scratch for Theresa May, British politics’ Black Knight: With each new wound she grows weaker, while becoming ever more resolute in her determination to remain in her place.