Appointing George Hollingbery proves Theresa May has zero political imagination

The prime minister has picked one of her closest allies to succeed Greg Hands as trade minister despite his lack of experience.

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Theresa May does two kinds of ministerial appointments: ones she wouldn’t pick herself but can’t avoid for fear of adverse political consequences, like Boris Johnson or Sajid Javid, or ones in her own image, like James Brokenshire or Karen Bradley.

Her latest pick confirms her preference for safety first. After the resignation of Greg Hands this morning, May has appointed George Hollingbery, her parliamentary private secretary, to succeed him as Liam Fox’s deputy at the Department for International Trade.

Given Hollingbery’s lack of previous ministerial experience, it’s hard to see it as anything other than a patronage appointment. But equally, given the imperative for May’s government is merely to deliver a Brexit acceptable to her party and thus survive, it’s easy to see why close allies get the nod for plum jobs more often than nakedly ambitious junior ministers.

As was the case when Sajid Javid’s promotion created a vacancy at housing last month, May could have appointed an upwardly mobile Brexiteer like Dominic Raab to Hands’ job. She didn’t, and instead rewarded a member of her kitchen cabinet.  

There are echoes in this over-promotion with that of Gavin Williamson to Defence. Loyalists are rewarded even if they are better suited to their current roles or more obvious candidates exist. It would be wrong to call them better candidates because for May only one outcome matters, and that’s the medium-term survival of her premiership and its ability to deliver Brexit.

She has no time or space to take punts on mercurial talents or risk giving a profile to insurgent upstarts. Indeed, the emergence of Javid as the frontrunner to succeed her highlights the risk in the latter.

Tory MPs I have spoken to are a mixture of bemused and resigned. None are impressed. But Hollingbery’s promotion does at least confirm something they all already know: their leader has no political imagination.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.