Several of the appointments are to briefs that have a high degree of churn. That's bad news for the Prime Minister—and for the countryby Alex Dean / January 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
Theresa May had hoped to assert some strength yesterday. In the end, the reshuffle had the opposite effect: it exposed her weakness. The press was briefed to expect big changes at Health and Business. Today, Jeremy Hunt and Greg Clark remain in their posts, apparently after refusing to budge. Andrea Leadsom, also thought to be on the way out, remains in place as Leader of the Commons.
The truth is that whatever her success in Europe last month, May is too weak to carry out the changes she had envisioned. Indeed, the biggest cabinet change—the departure of Education Secretary Justine Greening—was the consequence of a dramatic resignation. Not the political reboot the PM had wanted.
Still, May did manage to shuffle a few ministers around. David Gauke is the new Justice Secretary, while Esther McVey replaces the disgraced Damian Green at the Department for Work and Pensions. Matthew Hancock is now at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. David Lidington is the new Whitehall fixer, moved to Cabinet Office Minister, while Damian Hinds has gone to Education.
The problem is that these changes have something in common. They are all changes in departments which since 2010 have seen more than their fair share of upheaval. The roles May has changed have experienced disproportionate “churn” since the Conservatives first came to power. And that’s a worry.
Take first the Ministry of Justice. David Gauke has become the sixth Justice Secretary since the formation of the Coalition government. He follows Lidington, Elizabeth Truss, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Ken Clarke. It almost reminds me of the Defence Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts: the job is cursed, with no teacher ever lasting more than a year.
At the Department for Work and Pensions there is much the same problem. Esther McVey is a controversial appointment, whose first stint at the DWP was not universally regarded as a success. This aside, McVey is the fifth Work and Pensions Secretary since 2010, following Gauke, Damian Green, Stephen Crabb and Iain Duncan Smith. As for the others, Hancock is the sixth Culture Secretary in eight years, while Lidington and Hinds are the fourth in their posts.
This is not May’s fault per se. The PM has only been in office for a year and a half, and cannot be blamed for changes made before her premiership began. Moreover some recent upheaval has been inevitable given the behaviour of ministers. Damian Green, for example, simply had to go.
But it does present her with yet another problem to add to her growing list. For ministerial churn presents challenges. New ministers take some time to settle into their role, familiarising themselves with the brief, learning how the department works and integrating themselves with their new team. The insider know-how built up by the predecessor is lost.
This is not always a problem. A slow start is inevitable, but departments often need a refresh, some new thinking. The benefits of a new appointment can be great. It does become a problem when the boss changes six times in just eight years. When the briefs are as technical as Justice and Work and Pensions, the issue here becomes obvious.
As Chris Tilbury explained in our latest issue, Gauke will inherit a prisons system not fit for purpose, with a crisis inevitable in the near future. Another immense challenge will be the Withdrawal Bill, the legislation at the heart of the Brexit process, which Gauke must quickly master. This Bill has already resulted in one government defeat and it has still not left the Commons. The upper chamber is more sceptical still. To make matters worse, the department has also lost Dominic Raab as a minister, and with that his expertise.
The problems McVey will inherit at the DWP barely need rehashing: universal credit has become a national scandal, the faults in the system resulting in immense human cost. In normal times, this would be dominating headlines in the British press.
So many changes in so short a time in such important cabinet positions can only be a bad thing. Adjustment will mean time wasted that could have been spent getting a grip on policy failures.
Yesterday was meant to be a masterclass in political theatrics. It failed. But May’s problems run deeper. Some of the departments she ultimately has responsibility for are in a kind of chaos. And Britain can’t afford that right now.