Theresa May: shuffled out

The prime minister of the “just about managing” can no longer manage herself

January 08, 2018
Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at No 10 on the morning of the reshuffle that went wrong. Photo: Tim Ireland/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at No 10 on the morning of the reshuffle that went wrong. Photo: Tim Ireland/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Under the British constitution, remarkably few powers are formally entrusted to the prime minister. With the cloak of the royal prerogative, they could once start wars, but recent practice has been to consult parliament. They used to be able to call elections on a whim, but under fixed-term legislation they must now ask for MPs’ say so. But then British PMs never really needed any power, but one: the right to hire and fire the Queen’s ministers.

In America, the constitution states all “executive power shall be vested in a President." Under our cabinet government, by contrast, nearly all legal authority sits with the individual secretaries of state. No matter. Election-winning premiers like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have, by virtue of their ability to pick and choose those who sit around the top table with them, been able to develop into elective dictators. In their prime, their colleagues took it as read that if they took serious issue with the boss on any first-order question, then they’d be out on their ear. Which is, of course, what happened to Nigel Lawson over the Exchange-Rate Mechanism, and Robin Cook over Iraq. Thus there was, in the end, almost never any arguing with the boss.

After squandering her majority in a voluntary election, the PM has—naturally—been keen to prove to the country and her colleagues that she really does remain in charge. It is natural, too, that she should look to the one, hard power in her command to demonstrate this. Hence the whispers, ever since the Autumn, that she was planning to rebuild and refresh her team. She knew that it wouldn’t be easy, and that the moment must be chosen with care. So she basked in her moment of triumph in getting the Brexit talks to progress in December, enjoyed her Christmas break, and then gave the signal on Andrew Marr’s sofa on Sunday morning, where she looked genuinely refreshed.

She also looked, for the first time in a while, as if she believed herself to be in command of events. The weekend papers were told that everything was set, with the plans all mapped out “on a whiteboard in the No 10 study." Whereas most prime ministers shelter their reshuffle victims by meeting them away from the cameras in their commons office, this one would be asking winners and losers alike to walk up Downing Street. Bold stuff, but—like Donald Trump’s claim to genius—perhaps just a touch too bold.

For a closer reading of the same newspaper stories made clear that there were limits to how far the May writ run. The word was that all the top jobs including that of the foreign secretary Boris Johnson—who irritates her—and the chancellor Phillip Hammond—who she’d pointedly refused to back in the election, when she still expected a bumper majority—were going to be left unchanged. That made it doubtful that she could accomplish anything the country would notice. Still, she sincerely hoped that she could reassert a touch of command over her colleagues, by demonstrating that she still had in her gift a range of plum jobs, such as transport, education and health secretary.

"Theresa May cannot any longer wield the one hard power that comes with her office"
In the event, however, the real significance of the reshuffle slowly sunk in on Monday as more and more things kept not happening. And it really was a significant day, because May’s authority was steadily shattered. First, the Conservative Party tweeted congratulations to its new chairman, Chris Grayling, before redrawing this, because it turned out he was staying at transport. It was said to be an error, but to suspicious minds it looked more like a job offer refusal. A little later, it emerged that Jeremy Hunt had “persuaded” the prime minister to keep his health job rather than step up into the expected First Secretary role. To disguise the fact that this was another refusal, it was judged a good idea to rebrand him the Secretary of State for “Health and Social Care," which may sound like a big new commitment to integrate the two services, although the reality is that the department for health has traditionally had some responsibility for care; indeed, the officials working on a green paper moved there some time ago.

Amid a flurry of non-announcements, a similar trick was tried with Savid Javid, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government; his department already has the lead on housing, but this would now be added to his job title. Again, this sounded remarkably like May dressing up nothing up as something.

Meanwhile, business Secretary Greg Clark, it was reported, had been set up for a move, then declined. Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Penny Mordaunt—the announcements of people going nowhere kept coming. The retirement of 60-year old Party Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, and the stepping aside of James Brokenshire at Northern Ireland because of specific health problems didn’t add up to a prime minister, who has lost three cabinet colleagues to scandal in the last couple of months, resetting the dial. Indeed, it already looked like this “demonstration of authority” was demonstrating only its absence, even before Justine Greening went into No 10.

Few had any particular gripe against this quietly efficient minister, until the papers began to report she would soon be shunted away to make room for someone else at education. So she went in angry, was offered welfare, and—after (deliberately?) dragging it out for a couple of hours—refused and resigned. She tweeted “social mobility matters more to the country and me than my career," on her way out of the door of the PM who had promised to unleash the ambitions of the “just about managing."

Now, however, it looks as if May herself is no longer managing, at least in the ordinary workplace sense of that word. She is no longer able to decide who in the team does what. She is impotent to wield the one hard power that the prime minister has at his or her disposal. And after so many of her ministers have shown the world that being shuffled is optional, it is—surely—impossible to imagine her pulling off another successful reshuffle. She cannot, then, any longer wield the one hard power that comes with her office.

With a country beholden to the talks with Europe, and a government that hangs by a thread in parliament, perhaps we should not be surprised. May herself was right. She needed to get a mandate to govern effectively through Brexit. But she didn’t, and so she can’t.