Tudor enthusiast David Lidington will have enjoyed his walk through the Cabinet Office this week, with the physical remains of the court of Henry VIII still prominent in several parts of the ground floor of the building. Lidington’s new office is built over the entertainment quarter of the old palace, where Tudor courtesans enjoyed cock-fighting and theatre.
Our modern day Elizabeth, Theresa May, presumably woke on 1 January hoping that 2018 would be the year her leadership could finally move from “challenged legitimacy” to “golden age”. Sadly, for May, the political constraints she faces and tools at her disposal make this a very different time.
May notably lacks the Tudor monarch’s ability to “efficiently dispatch” those who fall out of favour. Brutal media briefings by “sources close to” or mutually humiliating three-hour meetings at Number 10, have a tendency to make lasting enemies.
The treatment of Justine Greening looks almost certain to create a new recruit to the awkward squad on the Tory benches and the former Education Secretary’s decision to sit between Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry on day one, seemed to confirm her new political vocation.
Contrast this with the Tudor era, when even the most Machiavellian of Ministers, ultimately feared the exercised will of the monarch. Jeremy Hunt showed us this week, that it is now in fact possible to negotiate, and even emerge with a strengthened hand.
Negotiation however has the unfortunate consequence of making the whole reshuffle process rather messy. Rather than a warm appreciation of patronage, several ministers, notably McVey and Clark, now have to face the humiliation of everyone knowing that they were not in fact first choice for their roles. But at least they have them.
Reshuffles (like party conferences…) are also when the party machine must function without fail. CCHQ’s errant tweet announcing Chris Grayling as Conservative Party Chairman may encourage the Prime Minister to reflect that few lessons have been learned since failure of coordination between No10 and CCHQ led to electoral disaster in 2017.
Even now, it seems no-one at CCHQ is trusted sufficiently to be kept in the loop on something as important as a reshuffle. If the Conservative Party really hope to turn the political page on 2017, they need to make fixing this a priority.
On a more positive note, this week was remarkable for another reason too. The re-blossoming of that Thomas Cromwell of modern politics, Michael Gove. Like him or loath him, Gove has a rare quality in the current government; the ability to create and pursue imaginative and radical domestic reform.
A political survivor, a departmental beneficiary of Brexit, and at the head of an environmental agenda that is increasingly recognized as a political asset for the party; if there is one person who looks set to do well round the Cabinet table in 2018, Gove certainly hopes that it will be him.