Failed Cabinet reshuffle leaves Theresa May looking weak as ever

Chaos and lack of direction define premiership whose clear focus must stay on Brexit

Britain’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt: spent an hour with prime minister Theresa May before emerging with an enhanced portfolio. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Britain’s health secretary Jeremy Hunt: spent an hour with prime minister Theresa May before emerging with an enhanced portfolio. Photograph: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

 

After last month’s agreement in Brussels to move on to the second phase of Brexit negotiations, Theresa May’s allies started sounding giddy about the prime minister’s prospects. Not only was she safe until Brexit was completed, they said, the negotiations could so enhance and repair her reputation that she might yet lead her party into the 2022 election.

Monday’s cabinet reshuffle tore back the curtains, revealing the prime minister’s diminished authority in the cold, unforgiving light of a January morning. Many prime ministers recoil from the prospect of antagonising the big beasts of the cabinet but moving even the medium-sized beasts proved too daunting for May.

It was unclear at first whether Jeremy Hunt had refused to move from health or Greg Clarke insisted on staying on at business. As it turned out, both were determined to stay put but Hunt’s hour-long argument with the prime minister spared Clarke the trouble of making his own. May not only left both ministers in place but enhanced Hunt’s portfolio by adding social care, if anything a more intractable problem than health.

Steelier move

The prime minister was a little steelier in insisting that the hapless Justine Greening should leave education, although she spent an hour trying to persuade her to accept another post before letting her leave the government. But for the most part, the reshuffle has been characterised by chaos, weakness and the lack of direction that has characterised May’s premiership.

It is worth recalling the brutality and callousness with which May despatched David Cameron’s allies when she succeeded him in 2016, missing no opportunity to humiliate the sacked ministers. She has shown a similar ruthlessness with her friends, insisting on making clear that she sacked Damian Green last month rather than allowing him simply to resign when he lied about a pornography allegation.

The purpose of the reshuffle was to refresh the cabinet and to signal that the government is not solely preoccupied by Brexit but is determined to tackle issues like housing and social care. The shake-up at Conservative headquarters is conceived as the start of a programme of rejuvenation that will help the party to expand its dwindling membership and attract younger voters away from Labour.

The problem is that the Conservatives have until now offered no solutions to problems such as housing, low productivity, falling living standards and inequality. And try as she might, May cannot escape the all-encompassing grasp of Brexit, which will dominate her world in 2018 just as surely as it did 2017.

The prime minister remains the captive of her Brexiteer ministers and backbenchers, leaving her little room for manoeuvre in talks with Europe. And if she cannot prevail in a negotiation with her own middle-ranking ministers, how is she likely to fare against Michel Barnier and 27 European leaders?

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