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Rather than demonstrating Theresa May’s strength, the cabinet reshuffle confirmed her weakness

The Prime Minister was forced to retain ministers she longed to sack. 

Theresa May’s reshuffle was intended to demonstrate her strength. Ever since her electoral humiliation, the Prime Minister had been too weak to make substantial changes to her cabinet (merely replacing the departed Michael Fallon and Priti Patel). Downing Street dared not move ministers for fear that the whole house would come crashing down.

But after ending 2017 in her strongest position since the election (despite the loss of her closest cabinet ally Damian Green), May felt compelled to act. For a weak Prime Minister, the power of patronage is a precious one.

But even in advance, No.10 signalled that this would not be a Macmillan-esque “Night of the Long Knives”. Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, who May longed to sack after the general election, would remain in place (having been strengthened by the non-implosion of his autumn Budget). Boris Johnson, who gave the Prime Minister every reason to fire him, would similarly retain the Foreign Office. And Home Secretary Amber Rudd (less surprisingly) would keep the other great office of state. An enfeebled Prime Minister cannot risk a revolt of the big beasts. 

The press, though, were promised there would be blood. Among the intended victims were Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, who May allies have long denounced as lacklustre (citing his inaction on executive pay) and Andrea Leadsom, May's former leadership rival and the much-derided Leader of the Commons. 

From the outset, however, the reshuffle assumed the farcical air that has defined May’s premiership. Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was mistakenly announced by the Conservative Twitter feed as the new party chairman and was stripped of this honour a mere 27 seconds later. Brandon Lewis, the immigration minister, was eventually named as the new chairman (putting Patrick McLoughlin out of his misery) and the combative James Cleverly became his deputy.

But though CCHQ received an overdue refresh, movements at No.10 were painfully suggestive of deckchairs being shuffled. The unloved Hammond and the conniving Johnson were confirmed in their posts. Sajid Javid had “housing” added to his full title (Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government). And Clark, remarkably, remained Business Secretary.

After Jeremy Hunt refused the offer of a move from Health (and claimed control of social care from the Cabinet Office), Clark was gifted a reprieve. The Prime Minister, who prides herself on her interventionist ideology, is thus left with a Chancellor and a Business Secretary who her team have repeatedly trashed. After mounting a counter-operation, Leadsom (commonly regarded as the feeblest cabinet member) also survived. 

The impressive and diligent Justine Greening, who clashed with No.10 over new grammar schools, was sacked as Education Secretary but, after a two-hour long meeting, May failed to persuade her to accept Work and Pensions. Having recently endured her first Commons defeat, a Prime Minister with a slim majority has created another backbench enemy (and a Remainer in a marginal seat - Putney - at that). 

The reshuffle, marred by gaffes and thwarted ambitions, served as a fitting metaphor for May’s premiership. Rather than demonstrating her strength, the event merely advertised her weakness. The night of the long(ish) knives became the night of the blunt ones.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.