What Theresa May doesn’t want you to know about her reshuffle

The diversity distraction.

NS

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Over the weekend, the speculation about Theresa May’s reshuffle came to a head. She was going to make some changes to her top team, but her plan was also to bring in some new talent to the frontbench’s lower tiers.

This meant younger MPs from the 2015 and even 2017 intake were tipped for promotion, along with more women and people from an ethnic minority background, to freshen up the party and help it reflect modern Britain.

Having now made her appointments, May has said her reshuffle makes the government look “more like the country it serves” with a “new generation” of “fresh talent”.

Even if you just take this at face value, you can see why it would be beneficial. The Tories know they’re less popular among younger voters, social liberals, metropolitans, and they need to modernise. Hence the Prime Minister dropping her pledge to revisit the fox-hunting ban.

Research by Queen Mary university showed the make-up of Conservative party membership is very narrow, with 71 per cent male members (compared with Labour’s 53 per cent), and 44 per cent aged over 65 (compared with Labour’s 29 per cent). They also have more authoritarian views, with over half backing the death penalty. The party’s membership is so low – estimated to be at 70,000 – that it needs to broaden its base.

So building a team that looks a bit broader is a step towards doing this, although it still smacks of saving the less important jobs for the minorities.

And while No 10 is boasting that there are now ten women attending cabinet, this hasn’t really been a diversity drive. The number of female full cabinet members remains the same, it’s just immigration minister Caroline Nokes and energy minister Claire Perry will now be attending cabinet even though they’re not secretaries of state.

The cabinet also still has just one member from an ethnic minority background, Sajid Javid, and one fewer gay member with the loss of former Education Secretary Justine Greening.

Research by the Sutton Trust shows that there are now more privately-educated ministers than there were in May’s original cabinet – up to 34 per cent from 30 per cent in 2016. The most high-profile loss in this context was Greening, the first Education Secretary to have been educated at a comprehensive school since that system began. She was also the first openly gay woman in cabinet.

The number of Oxbridge-educated ministers has also increased, from 44 per cent of May’s first cabinet having attended Oxford or Cambridge university to 48 per cent.

Of today’s appointments, six men and eight women have been added to the government, including five from ethnic minorities and 11 2015-intakers. But six of those eight women have been appointed junior whips – low-profile roles where you don’t speak in debates.

Usually, when a Prime Minister plans to make her frontbench more diverse, it’s in a bid for a good headline to cover up less flattering reshuffle news.

Like David Cameron’s 2014 reshuffle, which was supposed to be “out with the male, pale and stale” but was really a purge of the One Nation Tories like Ken Clarke, May’s diversity reshuffle may be a distraction from the tricky Brexit balance she could easily tip up. For example, the Brexiteer Esther McVey replaces David Gauke, who voted Remain (and is now Justice Secretary), as the Work and Pensions Secretary.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.