Theresa May’s plan to reassert her authority over her ailing government with a cabinet reshuffle has fallen flat, being thrown off-course with refusals and resignations from senior party members.
Education secretary Justine Greening was the highest profile resignation — turning down her offered role as the work and pensions secretary. Touted as a potential casualty when the reshuffle was announced, Greening, a remain-supporter and a moderniser within the party, spent over two hours in Downing Street before refusing the offered role. Consequently Damien Hinds was announced as her successor.
And earlier in the day health secretary Jeremy Hunt was another high-profile figure to refuse their offer of a new role. Widely tipped to replace business secretary Greg Clark, he instead persuaded the prime minister not only to keep him in the role as health secretary, but also extend his duties to social care.
The day began with a blunder from the Conservative’s social media team, mistakenly congratulating transport secretary Chris Grayling on becoming the new chairman of the party. In fact Brandon Lewis, who had been minister of immigration, replaced the departing Patrick McLoughlin, with Grayling remaining in his current role.
However, there were very few other notable changes to the cabinet, with most of the switches coming at ministerial levels. David Lidington takes up the responsibilities of the sacked Damien Green, despite not receiving the former’s title of first secretary of state. Work and pensions secretary David Guake moves over to replace Lidington as justice secretary — becoming the fourth person to take the role in just 18 months.
It was also announced that David Lidington will now be trusted with the role of deputising for the prime minister at PMQ’s when May is away. Lidington has had previous experience in the role, having deputised for May in December 2016 — where he showed himself to be the safe pair of hands required by the Conservatives.
With Greening’s refusal to take over from Guake, Esther McVey, who previously held a ministerial position in the Department of Work and Pensions during her previous tenure as a MP, fills the role.
Elsewhere Karen Bradley takes over from James Brokenshire as Northern Ireland secretary — Brokenshire relinquishing the position due to an upcoming lung operation. Matt Hancock meanwhile takes Bradley’s role heading the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The self-confessed Skepta fan, moves up from his ministerial role within the department.
Notably, there was no changes with the big-hitters within the cabinet. Philip Hammond remains as chancellor, Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, Amber Rudd as home secretary, David Davis carries on as head of Brexit negotiations, Michael Gove as environment and Liam Fox at trade. Rudd will also take on extra responsibilities as women and equalities minister — a role vacated by Greening.
Sajid Javid also remains in his role, despite his department being renamed to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. And Andrea Leadsome remains in her role as Leader of the Commons, despite being another potential casualty of the reshuffle.
After a disastrous 2017 for the prime minister, the news of an upcoming cabinet reshuffle brought great expectations, with party members calling for fresh faces in an attempt to revitalise the party.
However, the day ended with senior figures within the party describing the reshuffle as “embarrassing”. The prime minister’s attempt to assert her power has backfired, and once again she has been left looking weak and wobbly, not strong and stable she so vehemently promised to be.
After pledging to make her team “less pale and male”, the result was just one woman (McVey) appointed to the cabinet. Though with Greening’s departure it equals a net gain of zero. Instead of the fresh faces many would hoped to have seen, the cabinet looked discouragingly similar.
Greening’s departure has disappointed many in the party including the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson, who tweeted: “Sorry to see @JustineGreening leave government — she brought her non-nonsense, northern accountant’s eye to every brief and is a real role model for LGBT+ Conservatives.”
Backbencher Heidi Allen shared Davidson’s sentiment, stating: “A dreadful shame we have lost such a progressive, listening, compassionate woman from government”.
The MP for the marginal Putney seat, a staunch pro-remain supporter, is seen to be on the progressive side of the party — her lack of enthusiasm for prime minister’s ambition to reintroduce grammar schools and her relationship with the teaching unions was seen as problematic by those at the top of the party.
It is thought that Greening considered “social mobility and equal opportunities for young people, more important than her ministerial career”. Her constituency Putney has a young and pro-remain electorate.
Like her predecessor Nicky Morgan, now of the of governments strongest and most effective critics from the Tory backbench, Greening’s departure from government could prove troublesome for May as she continues to lack a firm majority in the House of Commons.
With Jeremy Hunt refusing to vacate his position, May was accused of “giving in to the boys”. The senior Tory MP who spoke anonymously to The Guardian added: “ She effectively sacks a woman born and raised in Rotherham, who went to the local comprehensive, who is bright and more than able, and who won a marginal seat beating Labour — oh, and she happens to be in a same sex relationship.”
It is understood that Hunt, who has held the position of health secretary since 2012, had argued passionately to remain head of the Health Department as well as taking on responsibility for social care (which had previously be of Damien Green).
The announcement of Hunt’s continuation and expansion of his role to health and social care secretary comes as amidst one of the worst NHS winter crisis, with waiting times at a nine-year high.
It was initially thought that Greg Clark, another who had been touted for a demotion in the reshuffle, had refused to move from his role having been in Downing Street for over an hour. However, Hunt had already persuaded May to keep him in his health position, therefore it is thought Clark’s conversations only extended to him remaining in his role.
There was also controversy at the appointment of Maria Caulfield to Conservative vice chair for women. Caulfield is a member of the all-party pro-life parliamentary group and has opposed the decriminalisation of abortion.
Labour MP Diana Johnson, who last year introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill to prevent the prosecution of women who end their own pregnancies without permission, described that appointment as “really depressing”. She added that Caulfield was “arguing for women to still be covered by Victorian laws”. The Tory MP for Lewes had spoken against the bill during the debate.
James Cleverly was appointed deputy chairman of the party, while Chris Skidmore, Kemi Badenoch, Ben Bradley, Rehman Chishti, Helen Gran, Andrew Jones, Marcus Jones and James Morris join Caulfield in other vice chair roles.
The Conservative headquarters had bared the brunt of the blame for a dwindling membership, and a disastrous Conference which saw prankster Lee Nelson hand Theresa May a P45. The result is that it is one of the areas to receive the major shake-up that had been promised.
The other department which has seen major changes is the whips office. With the Westminster sex scandal beleaguering Parliament at the end of 2017, six women from the 2015 election intake have been appointed as assistant whips in an attempt to improve party discipline and put the sex scandal behind them.
One minister who was caught up in the scandal, Mark Garnier an international trade minister was dismissed by the prime minister. Garnier had been accused of asking his parliamentary assistant to buy sex toys — which he later admitted to be true.
Other moves at ministerial level include Jo Johnson moving to transport, having rounded off his tenure as universities minister by spending over two and a half hours defending the appointment of Toby Young as a board member of the new Office for Students — just hours before Young’s resignation. Sam Gyimah moves into his role.
Rory Stewart — an expert on foreign issues, was bizarrely moved from his job at the Foreign Office and international development. He now becomes a junior justice minister. Harriet Baldwin takes up the roles vacated by Stewart.
Suella Fernandes a prominent backbench campaigner for a hard Brexit, was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at Department for Exiting the European Union, whilst Caroline Dinenage, Fernandes’ constituency neighbour, becomes a deputy to Jeremy Hunt in health and social care.
The remaining ministerial moves include:
- Alok Sharma — housing to employment.
- Dominic Raab — justice to housing.
- Margot James — business to culture.
- Harriet Baldwin — defence to foreign.
- Stephen Barclay — Treasury to health.
- Michael Ellis — deputy leader of the Commons to culture.
- Andrew Griffths — assistant whip to business.
- Heather Wheeler — assistant whip to housing and communities.
- Graham Stuart — assistant whip to trade.
- Stuart Andrew — assistant whip to Wales.
- Chloe Smith — Northern Ireland and assistant whip to Cabinet Office.
- Guto Bebb — Wales to defence.
- John Glen — culture to the Treasury.
- Rishi Sunak — backbench to housing.
- Lucy Frazer — backbench to justice.
- Oliver Dowden — backbench to the Cabinet Office.
- Kit Malthouse — backbench to work and pensions.
- Robert Jenrick — backbench to the Treasury.
- Nadhim Zahawi — backbench to education.
- Shailesh Vara — backbench to Northern Ireland.
- Nusrat Ghani — backbench to transport and assistant whip.
Alongside Mark Garnier, Robert Goodwill (education), John Hayes (transport) and Philip Dunne (health) will return to the backbench after losing their ministerial positions.
Commenting on her new team, May said it would allow “a new generation of gifted ministers to step up and make life better for people across the whole UK”.
In response to the reshuffle, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn commented: “The government’s big plan for the new year is to dodge the real issues and reshuffle the pack in a pointless and lacklustre PR exercise.”