Theresa May emerges from a fraught, crazy day in a stronger position – somehow

Reshuffles are one of the few parts of the job May excels at, and she did so again today. 

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Theresa May does not excel at many of the aspects of being Prime Minister but she has a gift for reshuffles.

This ought to have been a day of crisis for May and in many ways it was. Not just beaten but thrashed by Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons, down a Brexit Secretary, a Foreign Secretary and a host of junior ministers, she pulled off a reshuffle that leaves her Cabinet refreshed, more united and her own position if anything stronger than it was this time last week.

In at the Department for Exiting the European Union is Dominic Raab. Raab was, for many years, the protégée of his predecessor at Dexeu, David Davis and the great hope of the Tory right. The reality is that the creation of Dexeu is now widely accepted to have been a disastrous mistake that gummed up Whitehall unnecessarily. In any case, the significant discussions are now run by the Prime Minister herself and her top civil servant in charge of Brexit, Olly Robbins.

The benefit of Raab as far as May’s position is that he eases the worries of the pro-Leave right of the party but at just 44 he has a much bigger interest in the longterm future and governing viability of the Conservative Party, which will make swallowing compromises an easier prospect for him than it was for Davis, who will turn 70 this year.

Elsewhere, May has been more radical, promoting Jeremy Hunt from Health to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Like May herself, Hunt is a Remainer from the party’s left turned committed Brexiteer, who will, in all likelihood, be a less combative and difficult presence on the Cabinet’s Brexit strategy and negotiation sub-committee than Boris Johnson was. 

It also removes a politician whose standing among the medical profession is low and replaces him with Matt Hancock, who at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport charmed stakeholders and mastered his brief quickly. With more money coming into the service, now is a good time for an emollient and fresh face to come in and try to repair the badly damaged relationship between the government and doctors.

Replacing Hancock at DCMS is Jeffrey Wright, the Attorney General, who represented the government in its doomed attempt to prevent a parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50, who is, as with most of the beneficiaries of today’s move, a Remainer and a May loyalist. A rare exception to the forward march of the Conservative Remainers is his replacement, Geoffrey Cox, who is an upgrade on Wright as Attorney General as he has a significantly more accomplished legal career than Wright did when he took office. His promotion is also a good olive branch to any worried Leavers. 

May ends the day with her internal enemies now largely outside the Cabinet. But today also showed that her Brexit opponents don’t, for the time being, have the numbers to remove her as Prime Minister, or indeed an alternative Brexit strategy to bring forward. She could, despite everything, have emerged from the latest bout of blue-on-blue warfare in a stronger position to the one she entered it. But there is a risk in that, too: anything that increases the frustrations felt by pro-Leave Tory MPs increases the chances that they will vote against her deal with the European Union and that the United Kingdom will crash out of the EU without one.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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