Immediately after Theresa May’s reshuffle her more positive colleagues suggested that while it had not advanced the cause of the Conservative Party, the government, the country or the Prime Minister a jot, it hadn’t damaged them either. Yet now the mood is hardening, not least because older hands grumble that the wasted opportunity it represents was one the Tories could ill afford to squander.
An ideal reshuffle begins with two considerations; whom to move or sack because of underperformance, and what issues of grave concern require the most capable politicians to handle them. Neither was applied in the reconstruction May oversaw on 8/9 January. That Chris Grayling signed off £2bn worth of contracts to the outsourcing company Carillion even though it had issued a profits warning, and remains in a job that he has by common consent done dismally, makes the point powerfully.
One MP told me in disbelief last week of ministers looking May in the eye and refusing to move – as is said to have happened in the case of Jeremy Hunt. The Prime Minister had to show some steel and Justine Greening found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. May perceived Greening had little following in the party and so, when the latter refused a move from Education to Work and Pensions, May felt it safe to sack her. She dared not do the same to Hunt, partly because she believes he has friends and might have tried to bring her down. The urgency of applying some new thought to the predictable problems of the NHS was forced to take second place.
It has been said the aim of the reshuffle was to prevent people May doesn’t like from making their impression on the party and the country, and to put her supposed anointed – Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary – in pole position to succeed her. Williamson is a former chief whip who has achieved such eminence as he has by ingratiation rather than ability. When Michael Gove advanced the view that either Williamson or the equally implausible Damian Hinds, Greening’s replacement at Education, could one day be slugging it out for the leadership, it was assumed he was being satirical. It was a little like speculating whether Ant or Dec would be first to receive the Order of Merit.
Had the Prime Minister admitted the real challenges facing the country, her reshuffle would have been different; the point coming home to wiser heads in her party now. Never mind Grayling’s inadequacies: the postbags of MPs and newspaper pundits are filling up with fears about the efficacy and integrity of the police and the problems of law and order because of the prevalence of knife crime in urban areas and an epidemic of rural burglary and thefts. Yet the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, remains largely silent on the subject. Our international reputation is struggling because of a foreign secretary whom few at home and even fewer abroad take seriously. The Brexit Secretary David Davis claimed he would resign if Damian Green were sacked, yet remains in post having given the impression he is desperate for an excuse to get out. The NHS struggles not least because there is no strategy for dealing with the growing numbers of elderly who need full-time care, and just adding the C-word to Jeremy Hunt’s job title won’t change that. The government gives an impression of paralysis that the reshuffle has done nothing to change.
The party itself is a wreck, with the last chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, entirely marginalised in the disastrous 2017 election campaign. It needed a visionary chairman with a close-knit team to improve its communications, policy-making, membership and initiatives. Instead it got Brandon Lewis, whom a senior colleague described to me charitably as “a tosser”, a deputy chairman and 13 vice-chairmen. Some senior backbenchers believe the job should have gone to Graham Brady, who has kept the back benches in order as chairman of the 1922 Committee. Brady himself will now come under pressure from disaffected MPs who see the reshuffle as an utter failure and feel he should be more strenuous in telling May that such shows of weakness cannot continue if she wishes to continue.
Despite claims that she is determined to fight the next election as Tory leader there are plenty of backbenchers ready to put in a letter to Brady, as chairman of the 22, demanding a contest. Their numbers have been swollen by the reshuffle debacle.
A mood is building in the parliamentary party that Theresa May’s judgement and her party management are manifestly so poor that it will not be too long before an excuse can be found to remove her from the equation altogether. This will not happen next week or probably even next month: but the failure to dictate the political agenda is irritating MPs already angry with her for the election disaster.
The public’s lack of faith in Jeremy Corbyn, and the perception that much of the traditional Labour vote feels alienated by the Remain sympathies of so many prominent Labour figures, gives the Tory party a breathing space. Were there a dynamic and unified opposition, matters would be far more desperate for the Tories; and, indeed, May would probably not have lasted this long. The party in the country is now so depleted that what it thinks matters even less than it used to. There are, however, plenty of MPs who see a political landscape outside the obsession with Brexit and know there are initiatives a responsible government would have grasped long before now. It is this inaction, combined with May’s defensive embrace of mediocrity, which her colleagues will, possibly even before the end of the Brexit process, make sure becomes her undoing.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history