Brian Monteith: Cabinet reshuffle turns into unwitting comedy

The beginning of a year presents a fresh start for many people. That's why so many of us think about making one or more New Year's Resolutions. Some people want to give up smoking, some wish to abstain from alcohol for at least January, some go on a diet.

Wednesday, 10th January 2018, 6:00 am
Tories announce the wrong person as new party chairman

The beginning of a year presents a fresh start for many people. That’s why so many of us think about making one or more New Year’s resolutions. Some people want to give up smoking, some wish to ­abstain from alcohol for at least ­January, some go on a diet.

For politicians, January presents an opportunity for inspiring New Year messages that might rally support for a fresh start. For Prime Minister Theresa May, she thought the start of the new parliamentary session on Monday was an ideal time to have a restorative reshuffle of her Cabinet.

The intention was clear, and to help ensure the media all understood how important an event it was they were heavily briefed – the PM would show she was in charge, that her government means business and is revitalised going into the New Year.

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Unfortunately it did not quite work out like that. In fact, when measured against its own terms of political ­communications, it has been an unmitigated disaster.

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Rather than define the Prime Minister as a strong leader cracking the whip, it has like so many recent events – such as the farrago over the Irish border being hard or soft and the early morning dash to Brussels to conclude a face-saving yet meaningless first-stage Brexit deal – the reshuffle has merely underlined how little authority Mrs May enjoys as Prime Minister. Worse still, the organisation of her political office appears thoroughly chaotic.

The reshuffle started with the Conservative Party announcing its congratulations on Chris Grayling becoming its new chairman – only he hadn’t – so the congratulations had to be withdrawn. When the Tory Party starts to repeat as actual facts what the BBC has only speculated might ­happen, then the world truly has turned upside down.

Having built up media expectations of some significant changes to come, there was a genuine sense of being underwhelmed by Mrs May’s unwillingness to risk moving Foreign Secretary Boris ­Johnson, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Others that were apparently off-limits for a promotion or ­demotion due to their high-profile support from backbench MPs backing the Remain or Leave camps were Andrea ­Leadsom, Liam Fox and David Liddington.

Instead of a spiced-up Cabinet, we got a government in aspic.

Nor was there the promised greater gender balance or significant inroads for minorities (always a counter-productive PR sop in my book). The changes were only at the margins.Then there was the revelation that some ministers were able to refuse to do what was asked of them, such as Jeremy Hunt not only convincing the Prime Minister to keep him on as English Health Secretary, but also to give him extra responsibility by ­adding social care to his portfolio.

His reasoning was that it would look like weakness and panic to move him at a time of crisis in the NHS – but given the NHS appears to be in permanent crisis that’s an argument for never doing anything.

Not all the incoherence came from the Prime Minister, however. The English Education Secretary, Justine Greening – who portrays herself as caring deeply about social mobility – refused the job at the Department of Work and Pensions, where she would have obtained the power to make the biggest difference to social mobility imaginable.

Does Greening have another agenda we are unaware of – or was her own PR puff a rod for her own back? Maybe we shall see once she starts speaking from the backbenches.

After the Cabinet car crash, the reshuffling of junior ministers yesterday went more smoothly – but the lesson remains the same – for the public there will have been no real perceptible difference to what the Government does or who is doing it.

It has been not so much a restoration, as a restoration comedy.