The Prime Minister’s refresh failed because she lacks the authority to do it properly

British ministers in need of a good metaphor are prone to comparing their Cabinets to sports teams. An ageing Harold Wilson saw himself as deep-lying central midfielder, exhorting his more adventurous colleagues forward from a strategic vantage point. Winston Churchill and his cricketing cronies, excluded from Stanley Baldwin’s first government, dismissed the Tory frontbench as a ‘second XI’. David Cameron welcomed his old Eton rugger team mate Boris Johnson into his government in 2015 on the grounds that one should always have one’s best players on the pitch, even if they can’t always be relied upon to do what’s best for the collective.

Tony Blair had a similar conundrum to Cameron’s – so he solicited the advice of a man who knew a thing or two about developing successful teams. What would you do, he asked Sir Alex Ferguson, with a gifted player who wouldn’t abide by the authority of his manager? Would you drop him and risk a dressing room insurrection, Blair asked, or would you keep him in the side and try to tame him? Blair shuffled his deck like a hyperactive casino croupier, but he demurred when it came to Gordon Brown, judging that, in the end, he couldn’t be sure his squad wouldn’t side with his star player over the boss. Had Blair followed Sir Alex’s advice, and relegated Brown to the subs bench, British politics today would look rather different.

In his second Premiership, Blair was Lord of all that he surveyed – a colossal Parliamentary majority, an enfeebled Cabinet, Whitehall brought to heel, and the press on-side – and still he couldn’t sack his Chancellor. What chance, then, does Theresa May have of shaping her own team, with access to none of the reserves of power (or parliamentary majority) which Blair enjoyed?

The painful 36-hour saga of Prime Minister Theresa May’s botched set-piece reshuffle provides the answer. The new Cabinet is no more Theresa May’s than it is anybody else’s. Six months ago, Number 10 was preparing to turf her neighbour Phillip Hammond out of Number 11. Now he looks settled in for the long run. Boris Johnson has committed a series of characteristic gaffes – and yet he is unsackable. David Davis presided over the grim farce of the Brexit impact assessments that never were, and yet he remains in post, even as his Department hemorrhages staff.

Elsewhere, the Prime Minister was apparently minded to move Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, before being talked out of it by Hunt himself – and even Greg Clark, the mild-mannered Business Secretary, appears to have clung on, despite the fact that there (allegedly) isn’t anybody at Number 10 who doesn’t think him “useless and utterly incapable of making a decision.” May has the constitutional right to dismiss them, of course. She just can’t risk making any more enemies.

The more notable manoeuvres in this modest re-jig, such as they are, have been motivated by the need to show that May actually has the power to hire and fire. Since she lacks the authority to dismiss her big beasts, however, she has spent today ordering her bemused mid-ranking ministers back and forth along Whitehall, crossing paths on their way to Departments to which many may feel they are completely unsuited.

International affairs stalwart Rory Stewart has been stripped of a joint overseas aid and diplomatic role and been given the prisons brief. Dominic Raab moves from Justice, where his lawyerly background served him well, to the Housing role at Department of Communities & Local Government, where his opposition to greenbelt building probably won’t.  

The remaining desk-swaps are transparent attempts to stabilise May’s central operation itself – though even these look clumsy. May loyalist David Lidington, for example, moves to the Cabinet Office having served just seven months as Lord Chancellor, prompting civil servants to quip that there’s a yoghurt in the fridge at the Ministry of Justice which has been there longer than the departing Secretary of State.

An ‘omnishuffles’ this may be, but it was perhaps the best that May could afford with the meagre returns of her General Election gamble. The irony is that one of the best arguments for the early election was that the slender majority won by David Cameron in 2015 was already sapping Downing Street’s power. The lives of Prime Ministers with fragile majorities are governed by Lyndon B Johnson’s dictum that politicians need to be able to count. A majority of 100 is near unsurmountable; a majority of 13 can be overridden by any faction of malcontents, rebels and schemers 14 or larger – and there are now even more of those on the back-benches of the parliamentary Conservative party.

As for what this all adds-up to for business, the message is clear; in the current environment, it’s the civil servants who matter more than the ministers right now. Oh, and businesses urgently need a Labour Party engagement strategy.

Because, while May could yet go the distance to 2022 (and might even conceivably just about fight another election), she can’t escape the reality of Parliamentary arithmetic. For now, appeasement of her party’s bickering cliques will have to take precedence over coherence and coordination. And you don’t need Alex Ferguson to tell you that a team divided won’t win anything.

thomas newham
Thomas Newham

Tom Newham is based in APCO Worldwide’s London office and works across public affairs and corporate communications, having previously worked in PR and government relations roles in the alcoholic beverages industry. Read More