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9 November 2017

Theresa May has just taken an unnoticed gamble

Can she get away with it?

By Stephen Bush

When he was chief whip, one of the things Gavin Williamson tended to do was to warn Theresa May against promoting parliamentarians from the 2015 intake. He argued that the second you promote from a fresh intake, two things happen: the first is that everyone else in that intake gets restive and wonders why it wasn’t them. The second is that everyone who has been elected before them starts to worry if their time has passed.

And he wasn’t entirely wrong. While there were political reasons that the 2005 intake – which tended to be slightly to his right on the whole – were more likely than those who came before or after them to grumble about Ed Miliband, one of the factors was that they feared they had been passed over in favour of what one of them dubbed “the Goldenballs generation”: your Rachel Reeveses, your Chuka Umunnas, your Emma Reynoldses and so on.

In her first opportunity to shuffle the deck since moving Williamson himself from the Whips’ Office to the Ministry of Defence, May has disregarded that advice to promote Victoria Atkins to the frontbench, making her a junior minister at the Home Office, replacing Sarah Newton, who shuffles up to replace Penny Mordaunt as minister for disabled people, who is promoted to Secretary of State for International Development.

There are two things worth noting here: the first is that it once again belies the meme, common at Westminster and indeed elsewhere, that May has no thoughts of her own. I don’t agree with her former adviser Nick Timothy on much but he is right to say that the idea that he was the power behind May smacked of sexism. (Not least because that narrative tended to erase the considerable influence of Timothy’s female co-chief, Fiona Hill.)

Now that he is no longer employed, May is said to be in the influence of various people: her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, and Gavin Williamson, who was believed to have effectively appointed himself as Defence Secretary. (Next week it will doubtless be the turn of Robbie Gibb, her communications chief.)

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This is both done to damn May and to exculpate her. But actually the truth is that the Prime Minister is in the driving seat, not whichever man happens to be next to her in shot. She makes bad decisions because she makes bad decisions. End of.

But the second is that she has, albeit in a way that few have yet noticed, decided to stress-test Williamson’s rule. As I argue in my i column today, the fear of letting Labour in means that May is stronger than many people think. If I’m wrong, we might be about to find out.