When Harold McMillan sacked seven cabinet ministers in short succession during a reshuffle in 1962, it came to be known in British politics as The Night of the Long Knives, in a rather hyperbolic reference to the Nazi purge of German politics in 1934. Several have attempted to highlight the stark contrast between McMillan’s bold reshuffle and May’s attempt on Monday.
A Channel 4 journalist described it as “Night of the long plastic forks”, whereas the Telegraph opted for “Night of the blunt stiletto”. To Theresa May, it must have just felt like a long night.
Like her conference speech which — largely through no fault of her own — suffered major setbacks after being billed as an opportunity to show strength and, dare one say it, stability, May’s new-year reshuffle has highlighted the prime minister’s acute lack of power. May’s hand was more or less forced, with the third of three cabinet resignations in as many months occurring just before the Christmas break.
Usually, there are a few likely motives behind any reshuffle: moving future leadership candidates up the ladder, clearing political deadwood and attempting to change the image of government. Done right, reshuffles can have a slight positive impact on polling and make it much easier to carry out certain policy initiatives, by putting the right people at the head of the right departments and select committees.
But the risks associated with reshuffles perhaps outweigh the potential rewards; firstly, if not carried out smoothly, they are yet another opportunity for the press to attack a government’s competence, and secondly, as is often said, in any reshuffle, there will inevitably be more losers (those who are sacked or who miss out on a desired job) than there are winners, and therefore, more people who can potentially cause problems further down the road.
May’s new-year reshuffle offered a fine opportunity for accusations of incompetence early in the day, when after much speculation about Chris Grayling’s possible move from Transport to Conservative Party Chairman, the BBC confirmed the move, and CCHQ’s official Twitter account tweeted a congratulatory photo. However, within minutes, the tweet was deleted, and there were murmurs that the BBC had confirmed it prematurely, and that Brandon Lewis would be making a move from Immigration to fill the chairman’s role instead of Grayling.
Grayling is widely regarded as being an ineffective transport minister, who has barely endured several scandals — recently leaving the country when rail fare increases were announced — and news of his move was met with derision by many. Despite rumours that it was “internal pushback” that caused a last-minute change, the official story put out by the government is that a CCHQ operative had accidentally spread misinformation, and the job had always been Lewis’.
It had been rumoured that Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, would be one of the unlucky ones following the reshuffle. Ministers had briefed that her unwillingness to move forward with grammar schools (one of May’s only ideological sticking points) and an apparent amenability toward teaching unions would be the causes for her departure.
After almost three hours in Downing Street arguing with the prime minister, it emerged that Greening hadn’t been sacked per se, merely moved to the Department for Work and Pensions. It was a role she was unwilling to accept, though, so she resigned from the government, also vacating her secondary role as Minister for Women and Equalities.
Greening’s departure could prove to be extremely costly, and her ill-treatment displays May’s ignorance or indifference to the threat posed by Brexit rebels within her own party, to which Greening is now much more likely to lend her voice and votes on key issues. Worse still for the government would be if Greening resigned as an MP, triggering a by-election in her ultra-remain-supporting marginal seat, which the government might well struggle to win.
With such a slim working majority, even the loss of one seat would seriously harm the government’s ability to pass legislation unhindered. Regardless of her successor Damian Hinds’ feelings on the matter, it seems unlikely, too, that even in Greening’s absence, the government will be able to pass legislation on grammar schools, as they have very little cross-party support and a number of opponents to the idea within the Conservative Party.
It perhaps offers a worrying insight into Theresa May’s ability to handle tough negotiations that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt effectively refused to be reshuffled to a role as Business Secretary and not only kept his job, but saw his temerity rewarded with an extended brief for Social Care. The new Secretary of State for Health & Social Care title might not actually signify a significant increase in portfolio for Jeremy Hunt, but it is at the very least an acknowledgment of the growing importance of social care in Britain.
It’s said that May’s desire to move Hunt to Business was at the heart of her reshuffle plans, which may explain the reduced pace in proceedings following it. Greg Clark, the Business Secretary, was likely a little bemused to be called into May’s office after an apparent 90-minute wait while she spoke with Hunt, only to be told that his job would remain the same.
Wielding so little political clout, May was unable to clear any of the larger pieces of deadwood from her cabinet. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, has made more gaffes during his time in one of the four great offices of state than one would care to list fully here, and the only reason he will hold on to his post is May’s fear of a leadership challenge, backed by big-name Brexiteers, which she would likely lose.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, is another who, had he performed similarly in any other government, would surely find himself replaced today. His recent undermining of progress made on Brexit negotiations, following several major gaffes related to Brexit impact reports, would be more than enough reason for Davis to go, but again, May lacks the strength, or allies, to do so.
With so much having gone wrong for the prime minister, what few positive moves made today will be largely overlooked. James Brokenshire’s resignation as Secretary for Northern Ireland, on health grounds, caused May to bring in Karen Bradley, the Culture Secretary, who has earned a strong reputation, due in part to her involvement in the Murdoch-Sky takeover. Bradley is a well-liked and competent minister who inherits a traditionally challenging role, only made worse by Brexit.
Her replacement as Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, moves up from his brief as Digital Minister, carrying that portfolio with him, to become Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport — a role many speculate he will flourish in. David Lidington’s move to replace May’s former closest ally, Damien Green, as First Secretary of State, has been hailed as a safe, if uninspired decision. The same can be said for the choice of David Gauke, from Work and Pensions, to replace him as Justice Secretary.
All of this aside, it was still a relatively uneventful reshuffle, with more than 12 senior ministers retaining their positions, including all four great offices of state. Two more ministers remain in place, but with slightly amended job titles (Jeremy Hunt, and Sajid Javid, who had “Housing” added to his title of Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government).
Considering the many briefings to the press prior to the reshuffle, which described it as wide-ranging and promised to deliver a real shake-up, we must come to the conclusion that May either is unambitious enough to consider today’s reshuffle “wide-ranging”, is politically short-sighted enough to not see the fault in building expectation only to disappoint or was unable to carry out the full scale of her planned reshuffle.
May now looks increasingly like a prisoner, held hostage in her role, unable to govern as she would choose, but unable to leave, for fear of letting a so-called Marxist into Number 10.