LONDON — After months of reshuffle speculation, when the time came, Theresa May’s ministers couldn’t be budged — not the ones that truly matter at least.
Far from asserting her authority, the cosmetic changes to the British prime minister’s top team she unveiled on Monday highlight her failure to make her own political weather.
Hamstrung by her inability to move the “big beasts” and constrained by the need to preserve the fragile balance of power over Brexit around her Cabinet table, the U.K. prime minister largely stuck to the status quo, keeping the figures — or in Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, the most beastly figure from the vantage point of 10 Downing Street — who have made her life so difficult these past 18 months in power.
“Is that it?” tweeted Nicholas Soames, a long-standing Tory MP and Winston Churchill’s grandson.
Is that it?
— Nicholas Soames (@NSoames) 8 januari 2018
In a sign of just how fragile May’s authority has become, an attempt to move her former ally, Justine Greening, from education to work and pensions ended with Greening refusing to take the new job and leaving government altogether.
Greening had tried to refuse to switch jobs once before, when former Prime Minister David Cameron moved her from transport to international development, according to an official familiar with past reshuffles. But whereas Cameron’s communications chief took her into a room and convinced her it was her “dream job,” May’s team drew a blank.
“It was a very big mistake letting Justine go,” said a Tory MP who did not want to be named. “The reshuffle was a farce showing the prime minister is weak.”
Even more problematic for the prime minister, Greening, who is openly gay and was a strong voice for the Remain campaign, could become a potent force in the soft Brexit alliance on the backbenches. She has a tiny majority in a pro-European Union area of London.
“I think she is leaving the top people and the big departments in place, but they are having to look over their shoulders” — Keith Simpson
May also demonstrated her natural caution. 61-year-old pro-Remain Damian Green, the former first secretary of state whose resignation prompted the reshuffle, was replaced by 61-year-old pro-Remain former Europe Minister David Lidington. One moderate, consensus-builder stepped into the shoes of another as May’s fixer and chair of several Brexit-facing Cabinet committees.
Like Green, Lidington will stand in for May in the House of Commons when she is unable to make weekly Prime Minister’s Questions.
May’s most eye-catching move was the revamp of the personnel at Conservative Campaign Headquarters.
The party machine did not just fail to deliver a hoped-for hefty House of Commons margin in the June 2017 election, but lost the Conservatives their majority.
Outflanked by an army of enthusiastic Labour grassroots in the form of the Jeremy Corbyn-supporting campaign group Momentum, May’s promotion of a younger, more diverse crowd to the party leadership reflects widespread concern that the party failed to appeal to younger voters.
The party chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, is out, replaced by Brandon Lewis, the immigration minister who arrived in government via local council politics, making him a popular choice with grassroots Tories who deliver leaflets.
James Cleverly, a prominent Brexiteer and friend of Boris Johnson who was only elected to parliament in 2015, was made Lewis’ deputy.
Nine new MPs from a diverse range of backgrounds were made vice chairs of the party and, in an unusual move, posed with the prime minister outside No.10 Downing Street as her reshuffle began.
Keith Simpson, a long-serving Conservative backbencher, said the reshuffle would be a “play in two acts,” with May expected to move junior ministers on Tuesday.
“I think she is leaving the top people and the big departments in place, but they are having to look over their shoulders. There will be new people brought in that either she, or if she stands down or something goes wrong, her successor can then use.”
The new Tory team is a “recognition that the party and the government needs to reflect modern Britain and needs to be more diverse and cosmopolitan,” said Giles Kenningham, former director of communications at Conservative Campaign Headquarters under David Cameron, who now runs communications consultancy Trafalgar Strategy.
“The big challenge for them is to reach out to that elusive youth vote which has eluded the Conservative Party in the past, which Labour did a very good job of engaging with and crucially getting out to vote during the election.”
In the end, the reshuffle was forced on May. It began when her de facto deputy and longest standing ally, Damian Green, resigned following allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
May also replaced Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire after he resigned to undergo major surgery, as a small lesion was found on his right lung.