How Theresa May’s botched reshuffle killed hard Brexit

The PM’s failure to sack Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, was at the time interpreted as a sign of her weakness. Now he is helping her block the Brexiteers. 

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Ahead of Theresa May’s botched cabinet reshuffle in January, Greg Clark’s name was at the top of the list of ministers destined for the sack. 

The Business Secretary, allies of the Prime Minister briefed, had cut an anonymous figure and lacked the dynamism to make a success of pet May projects like curbing high executive pay. With no real personal following among MPs, he was also a risk-free casualty.

But the reshuffle came and went and Clark stayed in post. Jeremy Hunt, ironically, played the role of bed-blocker, refusing to move from health to business. That Clark kept his job was taken as a humiliating sign of the reshuffle’s failure and of May’s weakness. She couldn’t even move Greg Clark. 

Six months on, suggestions that Clark should be sacked are just as commonplace. Only this time they are not coming from Downing Street, but Tory Brexiteers. Instead of uselessness, they reflect his importance to what has become May’s defining mission: delivering a Brexit that’s softer than that which the ultras on her own benches would like.

Clark is no longer anonymous. At his and Philip Hammond’s behest, businesses are loudly warning of the risks of a hard Brexit and pleading for clarity on May’s plan. Clark himself has publicly called for a Norway-style deal by any other name. One source close to the Business Secretary describes his strategy as “wings and wheels” – that is, pushing for one that protects the manufacturing sector and its long, valuable supply chain

Threats like those from Airbus, which last month warned that it could pull out of the UK, and Jaguar Land Rover, which today said a “bad” Brexit deal could jeopardise £80bn in investment and force factory closures, come with enormous price tags. The pressure this coordinated effort to soften Brexit exerts on May is much greater than any open letter from Jacob Rees-Mogg and the European Research Group. Boris Johnson might say “fuck business”, but Clark is helping May use business to fuck the Brexiteers. 

What might have happened had the Prime Minister replaced him with Hunt, a born-again Leaver with one eye on the leadership? It’s true that the harsh realities of the business brief might have shepherded him down a different path. But it’s hard to see him going at it quite as hard as Clark, who is one of the last true Osbornites in cabinet. 

When the shape of what is agreed by the cabinet at Chequers emerges, it will be time to re-appraise the last two years. In the first draft of that history, May’s failure to sack Clark – and its unexpected consequences – could be one of the most important chapters.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.