After a string of resignations and a promotion, Theresa May has shuffled the deckchairs of her junior ministerial ranks.
It’s a Stephen-for-Stephen replacement at the Department of Health and Social Care, where Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond replaces Stephen Barclay, the new Brexit Secretary, as minister of state.
Barclay will be joined at Dexeu by Kwasi Kwarteng, who has long been passed over for promotion to a proper government role and has hitherto had to square his intense personal ambition with the role of parliamentary private secretary to Philip Hammond. He replaces Suella Braverman, while John Penrose replaces Shailesh Vara at the Northern Ireland Office.
Kwarteng’s appointment in particular reflects the government’s acute weakness. His appointment, like that of Barclay, reflects the paucity of Brexiteers left in the government tent who are willing to take ownership of its Brexit policy. It is a sign of how far Downing Street’s stock among Leavers has fallen that Kwarteng succeeds a minister who was appointed directly from the chairmanship of the European Research Group.
While it is true that he and Barclay can both point to having voted Leave in 2016, many Brexiteers will consider their continued presence in government – especially now May has openly acknowledged its much-diminished role – an abdication of the right to credibility. The same goes for Penrose, a one-time Remainer who latterly became an active member of the ERG.
Just as the appointments of Kwarteng and Penrose will not soothe the nerves of Brexiteers, Hammond’s will actively agitate them. The Wimbledon MP had been one of the staunchest Remainers on the Tory backbenches and put his name to all the amendments to EU legislation that Leavers hated. He also championed the UK’s entry into the European Free Trade Area and had been talked up as one of the pro-EU Tories likely to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement.
Bringing him into government does mean he will no longer be able to cause trouble or organise colleagues on the backbenches – ditto Penrose, who had campaigned vigorously against the government’s proposed energy price cap. A government source points out that in a minority parliament, every vote counts. But as is the case with the appointment of Amber Rudd, who also nailed her colours to the Remain mast in her time outside government, it does mean the government is no longer bothering to try to look ecumenical. With trust between the Conservative Party’s constituent parts at an historic low, that perception will matter.