New Year, same old problems
A new year has dawned for Theresa May, but unfortunately when she looked around the Cabinet table on Tuesday, the faces looking back at her will feel all too familiar. Despite extensive speculation in the media (some undoubtedly encouraged by Downing Street), the Prime Minister’s reshuffle has changed very little whilst providing more evidence that Theresa May has yet to develop solutions to some of the big policy conundrums facing the Government.
The majority of the Cabinet simply trooped into Downing Street to be reconfirmed in the same roles. Although Secretaries of State Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark were reportedly summoned to No.10 to be given different roles, they emerged having simply refused to change roles and having been reconfirmed as the Health Secretary and Business Secretary respectively. In Hunt’s case, not only did he manage to keep his job, he also somehow managed to grab hold of the social care brief in the process.
Indeed, the only real casualty of the Cabinet reshuffle was (now former) Education Secretary Justine Greening, for whom being a gay woman and the first state educated person to hold this position, not to mention being widely viewed as doing a good job, was not enough to hold onto her brief. Greening refused to take up the role of Work and Pensions Secretary, and now joins Remain orientated rebels causing Brexit trouble for the Prime Minister on the Conservative backbenches. This is something Greening perhaps would have been less inclined to do without the suspicion that No.10 had spent several days talking up speculation that she would be sacked for mishandling the education role. Esther McVey completes her personal political return by filling the Work and Pensions slot, and the strong performing Brandon Lewis eventually joined the Cabinet as Conservative Party Chairman despite mistaken announcements to the contrary on Monday morning.
But in many ways the commentary concerning the faces around the Cabinet table, and the less than ideal way the reshuffle has been conducted, masks a larger and much more serious problem for the Prime Minister and her Government. No.10 clearly spent many hours advertising this reshuffle as the one to create a Government better representing the country, but this is unlikely to resonate strongly with voters and businesses looking for a steer on some, fairly major, policy areas.
The questions around Theresa May’s policy vision for the country remains. What is her message to people about housing, education, industrial strategy and most importantly about how the Conservative Party can and will tackle these areas?
After two days of effectively window-dressing her own Cabinet, this re-shuffle has done nothing to show the Conservative Party’s vision for the future of the country to voters. There are some hints that certain policy areas will now be given serious focus. There has been an attempt to raise housing policy to cabinet level by pushing the issue into the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid’s, personal brief, as well as appointing a new junior minister. Similarly, finding a solution for social care policy finally seems to be returning to the forefront as the focus of the newly renamed Ministry for Health and Social Care. However, all other major policy areas are largely an exercise in watching and waiting for further hints about the Government’s direction and policy agenda.
Snakes and Ladders
Despite a relative absence of new faces in the Cabinet, the reshuffle caused a number of sideways shuffles across Government and the return of some old faces.
After his illness-forced resignation from the Cabinet, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has been replaced with Karen Bradley, previously the Culture Secretary. This comes a bit of a surprise, given Bradley’s lack of experience in Northern Irish affairs and some suggestions that she had been struggling in her previous role. Bradley has been replaced by Matt Hancock, promoted from Minister for Digital to Culture Secretary. Hancock is one of the only remaining favourites from the Cameron-Osborne era left in Government and has been rewarded for putting in the hard yards in Government following Theresa May’s initial decision to demote him in 2016.
Meanwhile, Damian Green’s resignation under the shadow of the pornography scandal left the role of Minister for the Cabinet Office vacant. Step up David Lidington, who makes the move from the Department for Justice to the Cabinet Office. Although widely liked and respected across Government, he was not appointed to fill the vacant First Secretary of State role. The fact that May has not decided to fill the position perhaps signals that she either does not have an ally sufficiently trustworthy enough to fill Damian Green’s shoes, or that she is feeling confident enough to manage without a de-facto deputy at this stage.
The biggest jolt to the system has been Education Secretary Justine Greening’s departure, not just from the education brief, but the Cabinet, having refused to move across Government to the Department of Work and Pensions. She was replaced by the well regarded Damian Hinds, formerly a junior minister at DWP, and someone who shares Greening’s interest in social mobility. In education terms, he is perhaps best known for calling on the Government to allow the Catholic Church to open free faith schools in 2014, and it will be interesting to see if this policy makes a reappearance.
In another cross Government shift, David Gauke has been moved from Work and Pensions to Justice Secretary. Although known for his eye for detail, Mr Gauke has the fairly unusual for Lord Chancellor but very welcome qualification of actually have a law degree. Following Greening’s refusal to take the post, Secretary for Work and Pensions Secretary has now gone to Esther McVey, who completes her return to Government after losing her seat whilst Minister for Employment in 2015.
And then there are those who have received neither promotion nor demotion. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond will be staying at the Treasury, so we can expect another Box Office Phil bonanza when he announces the first ever Spring Budget in March.
Amber Rudd ploughs on as Home Secretary, but has got a little something extra in a nudge towards the Government’s responsiveness to recent harassment and discrimination allegations – she has also been appointed Minister for Women and Equalities.
Perhaps the biggest anti-climax has been Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s renewed appointment. Rather than accepting a promotion of Business Secretary, he reportedly insisted on remaining in post, with the addition of Social Care to his brief. The new fusion of health and social care is indeed something we predicted last year – given the debates around social care last year (not least concerning the funding cap), it was astute to acknowledge that health and social care policy could no longer be treated separately. In light of Hunt’s refusal to take up the mantle, it is not in the most flattering light that Business Secretary Greg Clark will be staying on.
Others to stay put include Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom, Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – in the case of the latter two, they remain despite critisicism of their performance, which gives a hint as to the Prime Minister’s sense of security this New Year.
Sajid Javid will not be moving, but his ministry has now been renamed Housing, Communities and Local Government. Javid will be joined by the rebellious former backbencher Dominic Raab as the new Minister for Housing – the seventh in the role since 2010. A staunch opponent to Green Belt development, Raab’s promotion could mean any plans to weaken current land protections around London now appear to have been shunted from the Government’s agenda, in a reversal of the policy espoused in last year’s Housing White Paper and the National Planning Policy Framework.
Finally, and much to southern commuters’ frustration, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling can relax where he is, despite what a muddled CCHQ employee may have tweeted on Monday...
View from the Opposition benches
This week made an ideal return to work in 2018 for Jeremy Corbyn. Following an extended New Year break, the Labour Leader’s standing improved without him needing to lift a finger or make a single comment. The Labour Party will have been delighted to watch Theresa May’s messy reshuffle (something Corbyn himself has fallen foul of in the past) which has simply added weight to their suggestions that Theresa May is struggling to assert her authority as Prime Minister.
Labour are now likely to swiftly focus their attention on setting the agenda around the new cabinet ministers and drawing attention to the perceived shortcomings of those ministers who are remaining in position. Following their success highlighting difficulties with the role out of Universal Credit, new Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey is likely to be chief in Labour's sights, although John McDonnell should avoid the personal attacks that have characterised the pair’s previous interactions.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is also likely to be the continued focus of sustained Labour attacks given the current issues facing the NHS, particularly now he will be under pressure to act upon the decision to include the social care brief within his portfolio. In a similar vein, the rebranding of Sajid Javid as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, will provide a useful opportunity for Labour to shine light on perceived Government failings if new housing policies are not swiftly brought forward.
More widely however, the addition of Justine Greening to the group of rebel backbench Conservative MPs likely to cause trouble for Theresa May on Brexit, might create even more opportunities for Labour to score victories against the Government. If he is able to avoid questions over Labour’s own (lack of) policy, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer may be able to sow some real division in Conservative ranks as Brexit progresses. Watch how this shapes the Government’s decisions in future.