Day two of May’s cabinet reshuffle certainly went smoother than the first, and the objectives that May arguably failed to achieve in part one of her cabinet reshuffle have come much closer to fruition by its conclusion. Though the headlines will likely be dominated by coverage of the major cabinet changes and various trivialities, the importance of certain moves at both the cabinet and junior levels will go largely overlooked.
Two senior appointments warrant particular attention, but perhaps more importantly, with the full extent of the government’s shake-up now revealed, a clearer picture emerges of what this reshuffle might mean for the future of the Conservative Party and Brexit, which are now inexorably linked.
Esther McVey – Slick and Controversial
It must be acknowledged that Esther McVey could have, at best, been a backup choice for the role, which was given to her having been refused by former Education Secretary Justine Greening.
Critics of the government are already up in arms about her appointment to Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, particularly at such an important time for the department, with Universal Credit — the biggest reform in decades — still rolling out and facing many well-noted issues.
A petition has also been set up since her appointment to “Sack Esther McVey,” and at time of writing, has already received 20,000+ signatures. McVey is a Liverpudlian MP (rare for the Conservatives) who was hotly tipped as a potential future leadership candidate. Then she lost her seat to Labour in 2015 and was parachuted back into the safe Tory seat, Tatton, for the 2017 General Election.
Her history as a TV presenter makes her a slick media performer, a skill she has been unable to make full use of in her short-lived role as deputy chief whip, and May would be wise to utilise McVey’s media savvy much more in her new role.
McVey has served in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) before, as an undersecretary for the disabled and as an employment minister under Iain Duncan Smith. As a result, she was involved in several highly controversial policies, such as the so-called bedroom tax and the replacement of Disability Living Allowance with the Personal Initiative Payment.
McVey is a divisive figure who caused outrage on several occasions during her time at the DWP, describing foodbank usage as “right” and describing the function of benefit sanctions as “teaching” job seekers to look for work. Opposition MPs have drawn attention to her voting record, questioning her suitability for the role; McVey has consistently voted against increasing benefit payments in line with inflation and against paying higher benefits over longer periods for those unable to work due to illness or disability.
James Cleverly Brings Tories into Twitter Arena
One of the more innocuous and understated moves of the last few days was that of James Cleverly to Conservative Party Deputy Chairman. Cleverly is MP for Braintree and previously held various positions on the London Assembly, which explains his strong ties with former London Mayor Boris Johnson. He is the son of a midwife from Sierra Leone and a businessman from Wiltshire who worked in the publishing industry and held the title of Lieutenant Colonel in the Territorial Army.
He’s a particularly good choice for the role of deputy chairman, which will see him attempt to reboot the Conservative Party’s online presence to try to keep up with Labour’s domination of the medium, and plan their overall campaign strategy.
Cleverly is one of very few Conservative MPs with a notable presence on Twitter, the favoured medium among politicos in Britain, and he’s shown a willingness to take the fight to Labour in magazine columns and TV interviews, too.
Coupled with his strong media skills and his notable social media presence, Cleverly’s background marks him out as a real contender for future party leader, a role he has publicly admitted aspiring to in the past. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to expect Cleverly’s next move see him enter the cabinet.
Diversity or Tokenism?
One of the reported objectives of the reshuffle was to increase the diversity of the government, as a reaction to the Conservative Party’s poor results in the election among women, minorities and young people. May has gone some way toward shifting the demographics of her government in a slightly more representative direction, replacing several old, white male MPs with young female and/or minority MPs.
The number of women attending cabinet has risen slightly, but the number of female full-cabinet members has remained the same, with the number of LGBT cabinet members dropping. In a statement, May said that the reshuffle means the government “looks more like the country it serves” which is broadly true, but where education is concerned, the government is moving further from the norm, with an increased 34% of ministers being privately educated, compared with just 6.5% of the country.
Though the tactic here is relatively obvious, May’s nod toward representation and diversity could potentially cause problems among the Conservative base. Some newspapers have reported this aspect of the reshuffle as bowing to political correctness, with the Daily Mail running the hysterical headline “Massacre of the Middle-Aged Men” and Conservative MP Philip Davies criticising the government, saying, “It certainly does not do anyone any favours to promote people who are not ready for promotion just because of their gender or race”.
Promoting ideas of inclusivity and representation is undoubtedly a good thing, but it seems unlikely that this alone will do much to sway liberal and minority voters.
The Challenge of Brexit
A newly important factor, when considering the balance of opinions in government, is each minister’s view on Brexit. Balance on this issue is crucial. Too many remain-supporting MPs, and the Brexiteers might revolt; too many leave-supporters and the number of backbench Brexit-rebels might grow.
One move, which had been widely reported as speculation and has not come to pass, was the formation of a department covering the possibility of a “no-deal” Brexit. News of the new role had been received with glee by the tabloid press, with rumours that it would be filled by prominent Eurosceptic Steve Baker. These plans are confirmed to have been in place until as late as Sunday night, but May never carried out the move.
Brexiteers may find some comfort in the knowledge that the percentage of Eurosceptic cabinet ministers has increased slightly post-reshuffle, from 28% to 31%. Further consolation comes in the form of Suella Fernandes, who will become a minister in the Department for Exiting the EU. Fernandes is chair of the influential Conservative European Research Group, and has been among the most outspoken Brexiteers, having consistently, and publicly, sought to push the government’s stance toward a “hard Brexit”.
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However, the reshuffle does not spell out total disaster for remain-supporters. David Lidington’s move to head of the Cabinet Office, in a role which effectively sees him become May’s number two and head of arguably the second-most influential department on Brexit, after the Treasury. It’s worth noting that both of these departments are now fully staffed by remain-voting ministers.
Lidington is a former Europe minister with strong ties across Europe, and his views on Brexit put him among the likes of Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd. However, the new head of the Cabinet Office is well-regarded among most of his peers, and May hopes that he will play a conciliatory role between both sides of the internal-party debate as Brexit negotiations proceed.
In a cruel twist, it might be that the resignation of Greening, the remain-supporting former Education Secretary, will have more of an impact on Brexit than any appointments to it. As a Cabinet Minister, Greening was either unwilling or unable to disagree with the government’s Brexit strategy, but as a backbencher, she will have much more freedom to lend her voice to the growing number of Brexit rebels.
Overall, despite some setbacks and a few aspects that don’t play well politically in the short term for May, the reshuffle has been carried out with only a minor amount of damage taken by the government. While the reshuffle has shown how little power Theresa May commands within her party, it might well have also shown that she is able to do some good with what little power she has.
A number of hotly tipped young MPs moved up the ranks and closer to the cabinet and possibly leadership, in what has come to be regarded as perhaps the most vital function of government reshuffles. An attempt to promote diversity and representation in government has been noted, even if it’s considered by many to show some hints of tokenism. The precarious balance between leavers and remainers stays more or less intact.
The winners from this reshuffle will likely not celebrate long. Any chalice in politics has the potential to quickly become a poisoned one, and this government finds itself in one of the most testing political climates in recent history. The losers will retreat to the backbenches to plot their next move.
For the Conservative Party moving forward, the shadow of Brexit looms ominous and large, as does that of Corbyn’s Labour, who profess to be a government in waiting. One of the only things that unites both winners and losers of this reshuffle, and may well prevent further political fallout, is the hope that they will be waiting an awfully long time.