James Brokenshire is a more inspired cabinet pick than he might look

The predictability of the unglamorous new Housing Secretary will prove key to the Prime Minister’s survival 

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The minister for nominative determinism is back. After just three months out of the cabinet, James Brokenshire, who quit as Northern Ireland secretary on health grounds in January, has returned at the very earliest opportunity – this time, just as appropriately, tasked with resolving the challenges facing the shires over at housing, communities and local government (MHCLG).

It is, in some respects, a remarkable comeback: Brokenshire, one of Theresa May’s few genuine allies, underwent major surgery to remove a cancerous lesion on his lung just over ten weeks ago and only returned to the backbenches in late February.

Though a return to ministerial office in some capacity someday under May was a foregone conclusion, it had appeared that Amber Rudd’s resignation had come a shade too early for him to be in the frame for a full cabinet appointment.

That he has nonetheless returned so quickly, and in spite of overseeing a year of drift in Northern Ireland, is instructive – and says as much about the Prime Minister as it does her former protégé at the Home Office.

As far as Brokenshire himself is concerned, his return to cabinet speaks to his status as his mentor’s favoured utility player.

He is unique among ministers as an operator who is both unwaveringly loyal to the Prime Minister and competent in her own image: driven by detail and an exhaustive knowledge of his brief. He is also universally liked on a personal basis on his own benches, and is unlikely to rub many of his colleagues up the wrong way. 

These qualities exhausted those on the other side of the table during his time at the Northern Ireland Office, many of whom complained that Brokenshire’s style was too technocratic and more fitting of a civil servant than a minister. They yearned for a more dynamic character, which they eventually got in Karen Bradley; May’s other Home Office protégée.

Indeed, it was only after her appointment that an agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP looked like a realistic prospect.The collapse of the deal apparently reached by the parties in February, however, highlights the difficulty in attributing too much significance to a British secretary of state within a political system that cannot function without agreement between the two main parties.

And, after all, it was Brokenshire’s decision to, time and time again, extend the deadline for the restoration of power-sharing rather than legislating to introduce direct rule that made that near-miss possible. From the Prime Minister’s perspective, given the government's preoccupation with Brexit and choked legislative timetable, keeping the demands of the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland out of Whitehall and Westminster is something to be grateful for.

It will likely be similar at MHCLG: to expect transformation, or even acceleration of the government’s stated agenda, would be to misunderstand the political role of May’s ministerial protégées, who are appointed to manage tricky briefs cautiously, rather than risk radicalism.

Faced with a housing crisis, councils on the brink of financial implosion and the continuing fallout from the Grenfell Tower fire, the Prime Minister cannot risk a maverick, not least because of the threat to her leadership which would be posed by someone who had success in tackling those challenges. 

Such a safety-first approach raises an altogether more interesting question: who the Prime Minister didn’t appoint.

Middle-ranking ministers were largely ignored for cabinet roles in January and were ignored again for both of the posts that became vacant yesterday: most notably Dominic Raab, the housing minister, and Ben Wallace, the security minister (the latter was also tipped to succeed Brokenshire at Northern Ireland in January, but was overlooked in favour of Bradley). 

Both are ambitious and are frequently tipped as future leadership challengers but, given the Conservative party’s reverence for hierarchy, will doubtless struggle without cabinet experience. In that respect, recalling her most trusted ally from the backbenches is an inspired move for May, as far as her own long-term survival and succession planning goes. Not for the first time, she has narrowed the path to leadership for would-be pretenders to her crown.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.