Hand of Sir Humphrey suspected in May’s failed cabinet reshuffle
London Letter: Reshuffle intended to assert prime minister’s authority exposes lack of it
British prime minister Theresa May need not look far to find enemies arrayed against her on the Conservative backbenches. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Reuters
While Theresa May plodded through prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, many eyes were looking over her left shoulder at an MP sitting on the farthest bench back. Justine Greening, fresh from her sacking as education secretary on Monday, was sitting proudly in the “naughty corner” alongside anti-Brexit rebel Anna Soubry.
Greening was sacked after she refused to move from Education to Work and Pensions, where she would have become the face of the Conservatives’ welfare reforms. These reforms, which include paying benefits monthly rather than weekly or fortnightly and pushing many of those registered as disabled back to work, generate stories of hardship and misery every day.
May was said to find Greening irritating in cabinet, complaining that she talked too much in a “patronising and supercilious” tone. Greening also upset Nick Timothy, the prime minister’s Rasputin-in-exile, by opposing a proposal to reduce university tuition fees. She reckoned that the Conservatives could not win a political fight over fees with Labour, which has promised to abolish them, by offering a modest cut.
Greening, who saw her majority in the London constituency of Putney cut from 10,180 to 1,554 in last June’s election, may have concluded that she had a better chance of retaining her seat from the backbenches. An enthusiastic Remainer, she is set to join the Conservatives’ anti-Brexit awkward squad, led by the 11 mutineers who helped to defeat the government on the EU Withdrawal Bill last month.
Beyond the hardcore mutineers, the ranks of disgruntled Tories have swollen since this week’s reshuffle, joined not only by the ministers who were sacked but by those backbenchers who believed their hour was at hand, only to be overlooked when the time came. Robbed of the chance to serve their country in government, the disappointed can instead nurture their grievances from the backbenches, where they will find many companions in bitterness.
Even before this week’s reshuffle, May had no shortage of enemies on the benches behind her, starting with the Cameron-era ministers she sacked with brutal relish as soon as she entered Downing Street. Former defence secretary Michael Fallon and former first minister Damian Green, who were felled by scandal, may feel a diminished sense of loyalty to the prime minister who hung them out to dry.
Civil servants really don’t like ministers who ask too many questions
A reshuffle that was intended as an assertion of the prime minister’s authority has instead, in the cruellest way, exposed her lack of it, as middle-ranking ministers simply refused to budge from their posts. But it was supposed to have had another purpose: to bring on a new generation of ministers who could potentially succeed May as Conservative leader.
If this was the prime minister’s purpose, she failed here too, ignoring some of the party’s rising stars such as Tom Tugendhat and Johnny Mercer altogether and moving others from positions where they shone to posts for which they are not obviously qualified. Within hours of the reshuffle, there were whispers around Westminster that instead of promoting her potential successors, May was determined to strangle them in their cradles.
If the idea of the prime minister as the Machiavelli of Maidenhead seems improbable, a former cabinet minister suggested an alternative theory over dinner the other day.
“It was a reshuffle run by the civil service. This will probably sound a bit Yes Minister to you but civil servants really don’t like ministers who ask too many questions. And if you can move them on after six months, all the better,” the former minister said.
Despite May’s evident deficiencies, few Conservatives expect an early move against her and many backbenchers now repeat the formulation that she will remain in office “until the Brexit process is completed”. This means that she could not only survive until after Britain leaves the European Union in March 2019 but until the end of a transition period two years later.
May is held in place by the absence of a credible successor and the fear of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government which unites Conservatives of every stripe. But she has a perilous few months ahead as Brexit negotiations approach a moment of truth when she must decide how closely she wants Britain’s economy to remain aligned to Europe’s – and what she is prepared to pay for it.
The prime minister’s detractors point to the local elections in London in May as the greatest moment of peril for her, when a bloodbath for Conservatives could confront backbenchers with the prospect of their own political mortality.
Faced with a choice between their political survival and May’s, their hands will not be stayed by sentimentality or loyalty for a politician who has shown so little of it herself.