There is a good reason why PMs do not reshuffle only 6 months after a GE
One of the easier predictions I thought I’d made in a twitter string earlier this week was that Theresa May wouldn’t engage in a voluntary major reshuffle of her cabinet this year. Within two hours of me doing so, the political twittersphere was alive with speculation and supposedly informed comment that just such a reshuffle was imminent – talk that Number Ten did little to dampen.
Not that Number Ten ever does much to dampen or encourage speculation of this type, which is a serious error. Whatever happens now, May is in a worse position. If a reshuffle does go ahead, ministers have had several days to organise, lobby and plot; if it doesn’t, it looks as if she’s backed down.
The repeated refusal of the PM’s media team to engage proactively in setting the news agenda is light years from the days of New Labour’s fabled grid – and light years from New Labour’s media effectiveness. It does, however, mirror May.
Certainly, the media has changed since the 1990s but not all that much – and to the extent that it has, it demands even faster, on-the-ball responses to social media trends and 24-hours news.
Commenting on one of Corbyn’s early, botched reshuffles, William Hague identified six Reshuffle Rules in an article for The Telegraph. The first two were (1) reshuffles should come as a complete surprise to virtually everyone, and (2) a leader should never lose a contest of strength in deciding whether or not to move a minister. In being seen to march up the hill but not acting, May has already broken by far the most important rule and has made it more likely that she’ll break the second one too. Both are about the leader’s authority and both identify why reshuffles are so risky: handled well, they will reinforce the leader’s position; handled badly, they leave him or her looking weak and at the mercy of colleagues.
Which is why May should not be indulging in a reshuffle now. The time she should ideally have reshuffled (and would have done had things been different) was immediately after the election but her position then was so weak that she needed all the support she could get and couldn’t afford to alienate any senior figure or their MP supporters – which meant she couldn’t force someone out against their will. In keeping with Rule 2, she therefore didn’t engage in a test of strength that she couldn’t win.
May is not now in quite as weak a position as she was in June. The shock of the election has worn off, the deal with the DUP has been sealed, and she has delivered on the first round of Brexit talks. The timeframe of talk of her exit is in years rather than days. For all that, her majority is marginal and dependent on both the DUP and potentially rebellious backbenchers, and a senior ex-minister on the back-benches could make life very difficult for her. The intensity of the reasons for not reshuffling last June might have faded but the mathematics remain.
One aspect of those mathematics is that if you were wanting to sack some ministers, both because of their performance and to bring in new blood, names that might be under threat could be people like Boris, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Graying. With David Davis having already been sidelined to a degree with May having taken a more direct role in the negotiations, and having already lost Priti Patel, that cumulative effect would be a major blow to the original Leavers, something which would surely inspire at best concern and at worst outright hostility from Eurosceptic MPs and others, worried that the government was drifting towards a very soft exit. There are, of course, far more Leave Tory MPs than the number necessary to trigger a leadership vote. In theory, she could replace the outgoing Leavers with new ones but in practice, it might not be so easy to find square pegs to fit into square holes. Similarly, throwing some Remainers to the wolves in compensation isn’t a viable possibility because she needs their support too.
On the other hand, what would be the point of a reshuffle where dead wood couldn’t be cut off? That too would be a very open admission of weakness. Indeed, it was the very reason she didn’t do it six months ago.
The other reason why prime ministers don’t reshuffle so early in the parliament is because ministers have important jobs to do and in the first year after an election, they’re usually busy setting the agenda for reform and for legislation. This one may be slightly different in that there’s less work of that nature than usual – Brexit, May’s innate caution, and the aborted 2015 parliament all mitigate against a current rush of action – but there’s still work ongoing.
Above all, that means the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. On that score, Davis’ position has to be secure: there simply isn’t the time for anyone else to get up to speed on both the negotiations and the legislation.
None of these structural issues is going to go away any time, which is a problem for May as they will always limit her room for manoeuvre unless she can regain her lost authority. Without that, it’s difficult to see a window opening in which she can conduct a meaningful reshuffle until the Phase 2 Brexit deal is concluded, probably in December.
This isn’t to say there won’t be a January reshuffle; a PM can always instigate one. It does mean, however, that if May does choose to push on with re-forming the government, there’s a strong chance that something will go wrong.