Looking for positive signs in this most underwhelming of ‘major’ Cabinet reshuffles
What to make of Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle?
Firstly, one cannot escape how incredibly underwhelming it is. If you are going to let the media run with the story that a “major” Cabinet reshuffle is imminent, better make darn sure that the extent of shuffling lives up to the hype. On this occasion the advertisement was significantly glitzier than the product, which together with the stunningly botched rollout only added to the impression that the Tories are a frightened, disorganised mess.
Following on from that, the limited extent of the reshuffle – with Education being the only really significant department seeing a change – is another depressing reminder that Britain is led by someone without the authority to stamp her will on a party which is crying out for firm direction, let alone on a fractious and divided country.
Thirdly, even if Theresa May had wanted to carry out a wider-ranging reshuffle, what could she possibly have done that would have made the slightest difference to the direction of her party, the ambitions of the government or the fortunes of the nation? Maybe tomorrow we will see some encouraging promotions to the junior ministerial ranks – one might hope that some solid backbenchers with a bit of vision and ideological gumption, people like Kwasi Kwarteng or Chris Philp, might finally be given some executive responsibility and a launchpad to bigger and better things.
But in terms of big-hitters whose appointment or shuffling might make an immediate impact on the overall tone of the government, there was precious little that could be done even if the prime minister had wanted to shake things up. The sickness within the Conservative Party is deep, pervading all the way up from the (dying) grassroots through the activists, prospective parliamentary candidates and much of the parliamentary party, and a reshuffle can only be as good as the cards you have to deal.
In terms of bright spots, one can summon a degree of enthusiasm for the fact that charismatic MP James Cleverly has been made Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party, but odds are that the centralising, micromanaging bureaucrats of CCHQ will chew him up and spit him out just as they did to Rob Halfon before him, nodding sagely while Cleverly reels off a litany of smart and worthwhile suggestions before ploughing on in exactly the same dismal direction as before, tacitly encouraged by Theresa May.
I do also reserve a spot of admiration for “beleaguered” Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (which Health Secretary of either party has ever not been described as beleaguered, and at this point shouldn’t that really tell us more about the anachronistic National Health Service for which they are responsible than the personal acumen of any given incumbent?).
Being a Tory Health Secretary is surely the most lethal of poisoned chalices when it comes to future career prospects. The role guarantees that one will be pilloried by the Left as a heartless monster who cackles as nurses are forced to food banks and patients die on trolleys, regardless of one’s actual record.
Yes yes, All Hail the NHS.
For some reason either involving masochism or great nobility, Jeremy Hunt has borne this burden stoically for six years, and for him to plead with Theresa May to not only keep his current brief but also assume responsibility for social care is quietly impressive, and shows character. I personally think that the Tories are far too timid when it comes to healthcare, but if we must set our sights low and keep Our Blessed NHS in more or less its current form, we at least need to merge it with social care – and hopefully this is an indication that the government is looking to do so.
The main problem with the reshuffle though, aside from its timidity, is that it gives no real indication of a likely change in the soul of this ideologically lost Tory government. All of the great offices of state, the main levers through which a government might seek to remake the country in its image, remain in the same uninspiring hands. Meanwhile, a bunch of junior ministers play musical chairs with one another in a frenetic pantomine apparently designed to distract us from the fact that the prime minister remains far too politically weak to move any of the people who most need moving.
But even if Theresa May did have any residual authority to undertake a real reshuffle, what difference would it make? The reshuffles that truly matter in historical or strategic terms are ones where you think “ooh, that person is going to take Department Y in a totally different direction because they are a strong believer in X”. One thinks of Margaret Thatcher’s reshuffle in 1981, in which she sought to purge some of the Tory Wets, remaining holdovers from the days of opposition who were still wedded to the failed post-war consensus.
Yet few MPs serving in Theresa May’s Cabinet, especially the most senior ones, are known for having strong ideological feelings about anything at all. Indeed, many of them seem to cultivate a deliberate sense of vagueness, giving speeches stuffed with meaningless platitudes to disguise the fact that they are chickening out from taking a bold position on anything remotely controversial (cough, Amber Rudd, cough).
Believing in things and daring to stake a bold position is dangerous in this day and age – unless you are Jeremy Corbyn or retiring from electoral politics. Far better to be blandly inoffensive, to keep everybody on side and be ambiguous about your intentions if you want to get ahead – only too often this leads to the gradual atrophy of any real policy intentions at all. Spend long enough trying to be all things to all people and soon enough you’ll forget what, if anything, you went into politics to do in the first place.
This uninspired, unambitious, managerial technocracy was the algae-asphyxiated pond in which Theresa May went to fish for new talent, and her near total lack of authority within her own party was the dismal climate in which she set off with her rod and tackle. Unsurprising, then, that she came back with little more than a few old boots to show for her efforts.
And so to abandon the fishing metaphor for another, we have ended up with a reshuffle that most closely resembles a particularly dissatisfying game of Scrabble (or Words with Friends, for the smartphone-owning crowd). One swaps out a number of pesky and useless letter tiles in the hope of getting something better in exchange, but ends up with virtually the same tiles back again, only arranged in a slightly different sequence. All that effort and a missed turn, and still you are unable to spell anything meaningful or score more than a handful of points, be it on the Scrabble board or the statute books.
So far as I can tell, virtually nothing has changed. Good luck and God speed to James Cleverly as he goes off to bash heads together (or more likely have his own caved in) at CCHQ, and may angels minister to Jeremy Hunt as he continues his lonely mission to serve as Chief Cartoon Villain to every leftist in the land. But besides that, who seriously expects a shockingly new bold policy to emerge from this cohort?
I hope I’m wrong. But more than ever I think it is going to take external events – potentially very disruptive and unwelcome ones – to shock any kind of life back into the moribund Conservative Party, the kind of political shock therapy which also tends to land the patient back in Opposition for a time.
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