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. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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 deputy editor of the New Statesman.