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27 June 2018

As May’s authority collapses, Tory MPs are quietly arguing for a radical cabinet reshuffle

Frustration has not quite curdled into full-scale mutiny yet. But there is an increasing feeling May’s problems can only be solved by a major clearout.

By Patrick Maguire

Why has cabinet discipline totally collapsed? Most people in Westminster have a two word answer to that question: Theresa May. But her backbenchers have another: the cabinet themselves.

It has not quite curdled into full-scale discontent yet, but there are increasing mutterings among Tory MPs that the only way the Prime Minister can regain anything resembling authority or initiative is by clearing out her cabinet. 

Their theory is that the malaise afflicting the government at present – cabinet ministers behaving as if they were freelancers, divisions on Brexit, and no sense of purpose or direction on domestic policy – can be traced back to her not doing so in January, when a sweeping reshuffle was briefed but never materialised. 

Despite the promise of a bold new look for the government’s top team, nothing changed. It affirmed the fatalism within government and gloomy narrative about its future. Only one minister, Justine Greening, left the cabinet at May’s behest. “That failure to reshuffle made things much, much worse,” one MP on the lower rungs of the ministerial ladder tells me. “It kept deadweight in place and sealed us in an ideas vacuum.” Indeed, the Prime Minister has otherwise only made changes where she has absolutely had to, most frequently after resignations and seldom with suitability for the job in mind (see Gavin Williamson). 

That firefighting strategy is everything ambitious MPs, or those with ideas, don’t want. Appetite is growing for a night of the long knives. None of ministers attending cabinet are considered sackable now, with the exception of Caroline Nokes, who is blamed by colleagues for the Windrush fiasco, and Chris Grayling, who is Chris Grayling. 

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But as displays of the cabinet’s dysfunctionality get increasingly embarrassing and the Brexit process increasingly lethargic, the argument being advanced by some on the backbenches for the sacking of five or six ministers and a promotion from the middle ranks gets stronger. Tory rising star is a phrase that frequently appears in the papers, but the government’s problem is that next to nobody is rising and those who are definitely aren’t stars. 

For proponents of this argument, recent promotions such as those of May’s PPS George Hollingberry to Greg Hands’ job at the Department for International Trade and former spad Ed Argar to the justice brief vacated by Philip Lee ahead of better qualified Tory lawyers, prove their point. The 2015 intake in particular are impatient. They have itchy feet and want them further up the ministerial ladder. There is a feeling the forces of caution, patronage and deference (to the likes of Grayling and Boris Johnson) are choking the government from the inside. 

Arguments for a radical clearout just before or just after party conference, or the October summit at which the final Brexit deal is supposed to be agreed with Brussels, will be heard more and more if May allows the drift and infighting to continue. She will have the political cover to do it. By then, few will be truly unsackable. The only question is whether she will have the courage. If she does, it could give her premiership a new lease of life.