Of all the powers exercised by a British prime minister, few are greater than that of patronage. Cabinet appointments are made with no requirement for legislative approval. Yet it does not follow that No.10’s occupants get the team they want. Political caution prevents the rise of allies and the fall of enemies (witness Tony Blar’s failure to remove Gordon Brown as chancellor).
Theresa May leads a government with a majority of 12. She was not elected by either the public or Conservative members. But in her first appointments, the former home secretary has shown greater boldness than many of her more powerful predecessors. May has promoted friends and ruthlessly discarded foes.
The first show of steeliness came with the sacking of George Osborne. David Cameron’s greatest ally fought to remain in the government but was dispatched on the grounds that his reputation was irretrievably tarnished. He was replaced as chancellor by Philip Hammond, a friend of May’s and the man she had long intended for the job.
The Cameroon cull continued this morning with the sacking of justice secretary Michael Gove (whom May clashed with under Cameron) and of education secretary Nicky Morgan. Gove’s much-lauded reform agenda and his political assassination of Boris Johnson were not enough to save him. At the time of writing, there is no job for arch-Osborneite Matt Hancock, who backed the new PM early in the race. In deference to Tory opponents, Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet was stuffed with “wets”. Through the exile of the Notting Hill set, May has chosen a less cautious path. The new Prime Minister has no comparable club but she has brought in Damian Green, a friend since her Oxford days, as work and pensions secretry, and made Patrick McLoughlin, a long-standing ally, Conservative chairman.
The appointment of a raft of Brexiters – Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary), David Davis (Brexit Secretary), Liam Fox (International Trade Secretary) and Andrea Leadsom (Environment Secretary) – again displayed ruthlessness. May’s choices suggest a determination to validate her assertion that “Brexit means Brexit”. A sincerely “reluctant” Remainer, she has avoided appointing those who would sacrifice control over immigration for full membership of the single market.
There may be no ulterior motive but the appointments also suggest political cunning. By boosting Brexiters, the new Prime Minister has upheld Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule (“you break it, you own it”). It is Davis, Cameron’s defeated 2005 opponent, who has been given the epic task of delivering Brexit. Fox, another former leadership contender, who must seek the new trade deals promised by the Leavers. Johnson who must maintain the UK’s standing in the world. And Leadsom, the PM’s erstwhile rival, who must devise a new system of agricultural subsidy. Should they stumble, it is the Brexiteers, not the pro-Remain May, who will be in the firing line. By keeping Johnson within the tent, but far from Westminster, May has also prevented the emergence of a still-popular rival on the backbenches.
Prime Ministers are rarely more powerful than on the day they enter Downing Street. Those who are cautious when they are strong later find that they are too weak to be bold. May’s first cabinet shows that she grasps this truth.