What should have been a simple reshuffle for Theresa May descended into chaos and has further exposed the weak state of her government.
This week’s reorganising of the cabinet was seen as an opportunity to refresh Mrs May's own Conservative Party by appointing a new team to reinvigorate the party after losing the parliamentary majority in the summer. Eager fingers at Conservative party HQ falsely tweeted out a graphic congratulating the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, for becoming the new party chairman, but were forced to quickly delete this mistaken tweet. It is thought that Mr Grayling was the Prime Minister’s choice of chairman, but a flood of complaints from internal party employees forced Number 10 into a U-turn. It’s worrying how little the Tory party communicates internally when it cannot get the replacement of its chairman correct.
There had been some discussion as to whether Mr Johnson would finally be moved after several gaffes, most notably stating incorrectly that a British national was training journalists whilst visiting family. By far the most reckless Foreign Secretary this country has had in sometime, Mr Johnson has held on for two reasons. Firstly, he was a leading Brexiteer in the EU referendum campaign, and by keeping him close to home Mrs May keeps many of her pro-Brexit backbenchers onside. Secondly, and most importantly, he can cause much more trouble for the Prime Minister when serving as a backbencher. Mr Johnson is a MP with a unique opportunity to broadcast his views; with his column in the Daily Telegraph, he could cause the PM much more trouble outside the tent than in.
In another development, two cabinet members will get to add an extra word to their lapel badges. Jeremy Hunt is now the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care while Sajid Javid is now the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government (DCLG). These change signify the government’s apparent commitment to tackling the social care crisis in the NHS. Currently social care is the responsibility of local government, but it may be the case that Westminster will now take control of the issue. The shifting of control of housing policy to the DCLG also signifies a streamlining of government power in Whitehall. The increasing cost of housing has long been a thorn in the side of the Conservatives. Javid will have to come up with more than just an increase in the help to buy policy to find a solution, perhaps even looking at a expansion in house building programmes.
May's weakness was exposed by several ministers throughout the day, most notably Justine Greening, who entered Number 10 as Education Secretary but later resigned. The Prime Minister had wanted to relegate Ms Greening to the Department for Work and Pensions, but unhappy with this idea, Greening chose instead to quit the government. The MP for the marginal Putney constituency currently faces an extremely pro-EU electorate, and, showing as she does pro-European feelings herself, it is likely she will join other disgruntled rebel backbenchers and cause further problems for the government. This was an entirely avoidable own goal for May, as Ms Greening was a cabinet minister who rarely rocked the boat. Yet perhaps it was worth it, for surely her replacement, Damian Hinds, has vast experience in education? Not true: Mr Hinds spent a short period on the Education Select Committee at the beginning of the coalition but apart from this, he has no experience in education whatsoever, making him no more qualified for the job than Ms Greening.
Greening was not the only minister to cause the PM a headache. Number 10 had planned to move Jeremy Hunt to the business brief. Yet after several hours arguing in Downing Street with incumbent Business minister Greg Clark, May folded and declined to sack either of them. One has to wonder what went on during that time in the Prime Minister's office. The Daily Mail front page story says Mr Hunt would rather resign than move from Health. He has recently been under immense pressure after having to cancel all non-urgent operations in England and Wales. Yet when faced against the Prime Minister, he still came out stronger, purely because his sacking would signify that May recognised his failures.
As if being held hostage by your ministers was bad enough, this reshuffle also showed the government is failing to meet its diversity goals. Several days after pledging to make the cabinet more reflective on modern Britain, it replaced the only LGTB minister with a white Oxford-educated male. A day which should have been a walk in the park in public relations terms turned into an utter disaster in which the entire cabinet knew that they can push back against the Prime Minister's plans. Just when you think the government is getting back on track, they find another cause of derailment. An attempt by May to strengthen her hand has resulted in its further weakening.