Theresa May has appointed Penny Mordaunt to replace Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary and promoted Rory Stewart from a junior ministerial role at the Ministry of Justice to Mordaunt’s old job of Secretary of State for International Development.
They’re two very good moves on May’s part: Mordaunt is well-equipped to make a standing start at Defence, she knows the brief well and has shown an ability to run a department well at Dfid. Stewart has a longstanding interest in and understanding of foreign affairs and the international development role.
It’s a mixed blessing for the international development organisations: in Stewart they have a Secretary of State who really knows the brief, understands the value of international development and is going to be an eloquent advocate for international development and the 0.7 per cent aid target. But they’re losing in Mordaunt the government’s most natural and impressive communicator, who as a Brexiteer can reach parts of the Conservative Party that other pro-international development MPs, who are largely drawn from the Remain wing, cannot reach.
Still it’s a good day’s work as far as the government’s effectiveness and the posts make sense and are well-chosen, which reflects May’s reduced and diminished stature. A stronger May would not be promoting any of the figures who are, whether explicitly in the case of Stewart or implicitly in the case of Mordaunt, making big and obvious moves towards her own job. She would instead have promoted one of her own products, like James Brokenshire, the local government secretary, or Karen Bradley, who a year ago she hoped to make Home Secretary.
These are the appointments May could, and should, have made at the time, when she chose to promote Gavin Williamson, then essentially a May creation, to Defence following Michael Fallon’s resignation, and then weeks later opted to promote Mordaunt to the Dfid role, instead leaving Stewart at his foreign policy post and then, mystifyingly, moving him sideways to the Ministry of Justice.
There’s an irony here in that it presented May with an opportunity to move Karen Bradley out of the Northern Ireland job, where her stock is low among all of Northern Ireland’s parties, but she couldn’t take it, instead having to make these two appointments instead.
What this reflects isn’t that May has suddenly grown a sense of good judgement – but that she is no longer strong enough to exert her own bad one.