Amber Rudd has returned to the cabinet as Work and Pensions Secretary, less than six months after her resignation as Home Secretary.
Politically, it is a sign that Theresa May is no longer particularly worried about keeping Leave ultras on side: for the first time, she has reshuffled her cabinet in a way that does not maintain thecabinet’s Remain/Leave balance. (Esther McVey was a Leaver, Amber Rudd is not just a Remainer but one of the biggest Conservative presences on the Remain campaign.)
It also means the restoration of a minister that May never wanted to lose in the first place: the Prime Minister tried very hard to keep hold of Rudd, and it was only because the Hastings and Rye MP herself insisted that she had to step down having inadvertently misled MPs about whether or not the Home Office had targets for removals that Rudd ever left the Cabinet at all.
This is very much a reshuffle in the May mould: given a choice, her preference is always to recruit allies rather than to broaden out the tent.
But there’s another element at play here which is that the DWP, which had long been regarded as one of Whitehall’s most efficient government departments became a byword for dysfunction and delay under Iain Duncan Smith and a slew of ministers since – not Stephen Crabb, not David Gauke and not McVey – have been unable to turn it around, although in the case of Crabb and Gauke that was as much because their time at the department was cut short unexpectedly.
The Universal Credit roll-out is six years behind schedule, and while there is division about why the flagship reform is in a mess – some people think it needs more money, some people think that no amount of money can save the policy in its current form – everyone agrees that it is a mess that is causing serious hardship for people claiming it, with the potential to cause significant political harm to the Conservatives.
Now the department has a Secretary of State who had to resign because, at a minimum, she was not fully aware of what her last department was doing to reduce immigration, the Home Office’s main political priority under the Conservatives.
Rudd’s time on the backbenches was four months less than the ten months between Peter Mandelson’s resignation as trade and industry secretary and his return to the cabinet, and just one month more than that between David Blunkett’s resignation as home secretary and his appointment as welfare secretary, and neither Mandelson or Blunkett’s resignations raised questions over their ministerial competence. (Mandelson resigned over an undeclared loan to buy his house, Blunkett over allegations he had fast-tracked his nanny’s visa.)
It’s both a huge opportunity for Rudd – turn around the DWP and the Windrush scandal and its fallout will be seen as an inevitable result of being May’s successor at the Home Office, plus reap the ensuing political rewards – and a big risk for May two times over. If Rudd succeeds at the DWP, it will further suggest that May’s tenure at the Home Office was actually a disaster that she merely did a good job of hiding while she was in charge. If Rudd fails, at least some of the ignominy will be heaped on May.