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12 June 2017

Theresa May’s astute moves may not be enough to save her

If the Prime Minister fails to reassure Conservative backbenchers this evening, her premiership could be over by Friday.

By Stephen Bush

Is our leader learning? Theresa May has made the first astute calls since she called the snap election back on 18 April, as she bids to reboot her troubled premiership. 

As a first step, she has reshuffled her Cabinet, after a fashion. Gone were the dreams of sacking Philip Hammond, Sajid Javid, Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom. All remain in the Cabinet, though Truss is demoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Leadsom is made Leader of the House of Commons. David Lidington is promoted to Secretary of State for Justice.

But the big news is that Defra continues to do sterling work for the endangered: this time by allowing a Cabinet return for Michael Gove and with it the hope that May’s new government will last long enough to send out a Christmas card. “May calls in Gove to save her from leadership challenge” is the Telegraph‘s splash, while “Gove is back as May tries to rebuild” is the i’s.

As astute leaders often do when they are in trouble, May has hobbled an old friend: her longstanding political ally, Damian Green, is stripped of his departmental role at the DWP, which goes to David Gauke, and given the title of First Secretary of State, ie, deputy in all but name. But a berth in the Cabinet Office is some way short of the Treasury job that he might have had if May had secured that big majority she wanted.

The moves work well in two different ways. The first is that, as Margaret Thatcher found in 1990, it’s never a good idea to leave people who have been Secretaries of State floating around the backbenches, where they can very quickly become lightning rods for discontent – and there is a lot of discontent floating about at the moment, as you can imagine. There are only two politicians left outside with the experience to step up into the top job – Ken Clarke and Nicky Morgan, and both are too Europhile to lead a serious putsch.

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May has also been clever in putting more Remainers in the inner sanctum. Her strongest supporters – though both those words, rather like the pound, don’t have the value they had on 7 June – are from the party’s Brexit wing and by promoting those from the Tory left she is insulating herself on that quarter.

Behind the scenes, she’s appointed Gavin Barwell, defeated in Croydon Central on Thursday, to be her chief of staff, replacing Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who have fallen on their swords in order to keep their boss in place. The move is, again, politically astute. Barwell is well-liked in the Conservative party and knows it well. The move is also a symbolic way of showing that May gets that, as far as the parliamentary party is concerned, a lot of good people were left out of a job on Friday morning and it’s all her fault. Barwell will also drain the poison out of the atmosphere in Downing Street, which civil servants will welcome and will also bolster May.

Good moves, but it is it too little, too late? The Conservative Party will never let May lead them into another election, that’s for sure. But whether she can lead for the next four years depends on two things. The first is her success in doing a deal with the 11 Unionist MPs (Sylvia Hermon is anti-Conservative but won’t put Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in office due to their 1980s associations).

But the second is whether or not she can heal and settle Conservative backbenchers at the 1922 committee this evening. If she can’t, forget making it until Christmas – her premiership could be over by Friday.