The exodus of Tory MPs from government jobs after Theresa May struck her Brexit deal left the prime minister with lots of vacancies to fill – or deckchairs to shuffle.
While those ministers who resigned were replaced reasonably quickly, a raft of parliamentary private secretary positions – the first, unpaid rung on the ministerial ladder – were left unfilled.
In some cases, this was deliberate: Julian Smith, the chief whip, told existing PPSs in November that some positions had been left unfilled on purpose – so as to give him carrots or “poor man’s knighthoods” to wield before would-be rebels or to reward loyalty ahead of the meaningful vote.
Since then, appointments to the vacant posts have been made quietly, with announcements made at the discretion of the gigs’ recipients. Jack Lopresti, a rare Brexiteer backer of the agreement, was appointed PPS to Steve Barclay last month, while Andrew Bowie, a Scottish Tory elected in 2017, became Theresa May’s second PPS in the days between Christmas and New Year.
Otherwise, there has been radio silence and the government has not updated its official PPS list since September. The NS has learned, however, that a raft of appointments have been made with next to no fanfare from either the MPs or ministers in question.
Huw Merriman, the Bexhill and Battle MP first elected in 2015, has been promoted from assisting the junior Treasury ministers to PPS to Philip Hammond, the Chancellor. (This post that had been left deliberately vacant for some time after its previous incumbent, Kwasi Kwarteng, was appointed a Brexit minister in November.)
His former colleague as PPS to the Treasury ministerial team, Gillian Keegan – elected MP for Chichester in 2017 – replaces Will Quince, who quit the payroll to oppose the Withdrawal Agreement, as PPS to Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.
Julian Knight, the 2015 intake MP for Solihull, moves from his role as PPS to the junior DWP ministers to replace her at the Treasury; while John Howell, who won the Henley by-election in 2008, becomes junior PPS at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (a promotion that has struck colleagues given his relatively advanced age, 63, and length of parliamentary service).
Most striking, however, is the promotion of two more Scottish Conservative MPs elected in 2017 onto the government payroll. Kirstene Hair, MP for Angus, has been appointed PPS to the junior justice ministers, while Colin Clark, MP for Gordon, replaces Knight at the DWP.
Their promotions – and that of Bowie – means that more than half of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs now occupy a government job. (David Mundell sits in cabinet as Scottish Secretary while Hair, Clark, Bowie, Paul Masterton, Alister Jack and Luke Graham all have PPS roles.) The presence of Clark and Jack on that list is significant – last February, both signed a European Research Group letter demanding “full regulatory autonomy” for the UK after Brexit.
That they have been brought and kept inside the government tent in recent months reflects Downing Street’s hold over the 2017 intake and particularly the Scottish Tory MPs, only three of whom – Douglas Ross, Ross Thomson and John Lamont – will vote against the Withdrawal Agreement. The appointments of Clark and Hair to the payroll also mean that more than half of the 32-strong 2017 intake of Tory MPs as a whole now have government jobs. As all else collapses around her, Theresa May retains the power of patronage.