Theresa May (pictured) suffered a troubled reshuffle on Monday
As momentum towards Theresa May‘s reshuffle built up last week, we were told that she would take the opportunity to reassert her battered authority. The reverse has happened.
Yesterday was the Westminster equivalent of a motorway pile-up.
I am an admirer of the Prime Minister, but there’s no pretending it was a success.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that future students of politics will be given the British Cabinet reshuffle of January 2018 as a case history of how it should not be done.
The aim of the reshuffle had been to make Mrs May look strong. Instead, it reminded the nation of the perils of not having a majority in the House of Commons and the subsequent dangers of having a Prime Minister who does not have the full confidence of her Cabinet colleagues.
Ideally, Cabinet reshuffles are swift and efficient affairs. Not so yesterday.
It was broad daylight when Mrs May called Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt into No 10 with the intention of awarding him a new portfolio, most probably the Business department.
Two hours had passed and darkness had fallen by the time Mr Hunt left the building. He was still in the same job, very much so.
Indeed, he had been given the extra responsibility of social care policy. I believe this was ill-advised because Mr Hunt’s current role, running the NHS, is already hugely onerous.
It was the same mini-shambles when it came to Business Secretary Greg Clark. The Prime Minister was determined to move him. And yet Clark dodged the bullet because Mr Hunt had refused to take his job!
Can you imagine if a minister had tried to defy Margaret Thatcher. Or if she had been faced with the prospect of having to keep in her Cabinet someone she considered to be deadwood?
Exactly. The imagination boggles. Mrs May — a pushover for her own ministers — is no Mrs Thatcher.
Next, Mrs May tried to move Justine Greening, her wet and ineffective Education Secretary, to take charge of welfare. Greening wouldn’t do it. Three hours of horse-trading ensued, at the end of which Greening flounced out of the Government.
It’s clear that Mrs May went into Reshuffle Monday with a Plan A. And did not even emerge with a Plan B. Or even a Plan C.
She found herself dealing with Plan D — ‘D’ for Damage limitation.
The Prime Minister called Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (pictured) into No 10 to offer him the a new role – but he said he would not leave his current department
In fact, when the Daily Mail went to press last night, the Prime Minister had managed to sack only one Cabinet minister!
Meanwhile, the farce had begun as Conservative Campaign Headquarters announced that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling had been made party chairman, when he hadn’t.
We still don’t know whether Mrs May wanted to send Mr Grayling to run the Conservative machine and he refused — or whether he agreed but senior figures inside the Tory party HQ wouldn’t take him.
Whatever the case, Mrs May was defied again.
One thing is, however, certain. Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the Tory Party chairman, has quit.
But Mrs May can’t even be given the credit for that! It emerged yesterday that the bumbling McLoughlin had been begging to be put out of his misery and to leave his job for months.
It’s no secret that Mrs May yearns to sack Philip Hammond, who many believe lacks the intellectual and personal calibre to be Chancellor.
Disposing of Hammond would have sent out the positive message that Mrs May was prepared to be ruthless, while enabling the introduction of younger new talent to a Cabinet which is in crying need of younger blood. However, she lacked the guts to dump Spreadsheet Phil.
Other changes amounted to tinkering — such as the name change at the now Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
To be fair to Mrs May, there is a great deal to be said for leaving ministers in the same job for many years.
The longer they get to know their department, the longer they understand the issues at stake. With experience comes good judgment.
Furthermore, Mrs May achieved two crucial appointments which do address the two central weaknesses in her Government.
The first is the arrival of David Lidington as Cabinet Office minister to replace disgraced Damian Green.
This is, beyond question, good news.
Mrs May ended up sacking Justine Greening (pictured) when she refused to move over to work and pensions
From now on, Dr Lidington will, in all but name, be the Deputy Prime Minister. He will make many of the key decisions, while assuming charge of the Cabinet committees through which government is conducted.
Having known Mr Lidington for three decades, I cannot think of a better man for the job.
He is competent and self-effacing. He knows his way around Whitehall better than almost anyone else.
Two years ago, he was on the verge of being sacked by David Cameron. Now he will be the heart and soul of the Theresa May administration.
Mr Lidington’s first task will be to sort out the machinery of government in No 10. And not before time. Mrs May’s office — under her political secretary Stephen Parkinson, who must carry the can for much of yesterday’s chaos — has been shambolic.
Mr Lidington’s priority will be to sharpen up the Downing Street operation and give direction and purpose to a Government which has often lacked both.
The second, equally crucial, appointment is that of Brandon Lewis as Tory Party chairman.
By replacing Sir Patrick McLoughlin, arguably the worst chairman the party has ever had, he will have to address the awesome challenge of invigorating a Conservative Party whose membership is in free fall and now stands at an estimated 70,000.
This compares abominably with Jeremy Corbyn, who has galvanised Labour to such an extent that its party membership stands at just under 600,000 — more than eight times higher than that of the Tories.
Brandon Lewis is energetic and capable. He enjoys campaigning. He is ambitious. He certainly needs to be, given that he’s been handed one of the most difficult tasks in politics.
Mrs May has chosen wisely in appointing James Cleverly, one of her most gifted new Tory MPs, as his deputy.
Historically it has been very rare for a Conservative leader to try to revive the party machine while in government. Three giant cheers to Mrs May for attempting to achieve this. But she has had no choice.
The appointments of Lewis and, even more to the point, Lidington, send out a powerful message.
Contrary to much recent analysis, Mrs May is utterly determined to fight the next general election, scheduled to be held in 2022.
Britain needs a period of stability as we navigate Brexit.
Let’s hope that the shambles of yesterday’s Cabinet reshuffle is quickly forgotten and we can concentrate on ministers’ achievements rather than their jockeying for position round the Cabinet table.
Because if it isn’t, there’ll surely be trouble ahead.