Is that it? How Theresa May fumbled her cabinet reshuffle

Once more into the breach. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

After much anticipation, Prime Minister Theresa May has finally reshuffled her cabinet. The New Year changes were a delayed response to the resignation of Damian Green, the former first secretary of state, who was sacked in December for breaching the Ministerial Code.

May had already lost two senior ministers in November. First, Michael Fallon quit as defence secretary amid allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards women, and then Priti Patel was sacked as international development secretary after holding a series of undisclosed meetings with Israeli politicians. Perhaps confident that no more ministers would be caught up in allegations of sexual harassment, the prime minister took Green’s departure as an opportunity to refresh her front team.

Like most major reshuffles, this one was preceded by much speculation – but in the event it was a damp squib.

May has increased the number of cabinet attendees to 29, but 24 of them are old faces. They include Julian Smith, who replaced Gavin Williamson as chief whip following the latter’s promotion to defence secretary in November, and Penny Mordaunt, who replaced Patel as international development secretary. In addition to Green’s earlier departure, three ministers left the cabinet: Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman; James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, who stepped down for health reasons; and Justine Greening, the education secretary.

A few ministers have changed jobs, but 20 of May’s 29 cabinet attendees hold essentially the same portfolio as before, and, crucially, there has been no change at the top: Philip Hammond remains chancellor, Amber Rudd home secretary, Boris Johnson foreign secretary and David Davis Brexit secretary. As Tory grandee Nicholas Soames tweeted: “Is that it?”

The reshuffle looks especially limited when compared with May’s first reshuffle. Back in July 2016, after succeeding David Cameron, she launched her premiership with one of the most wide-ranging reshuffles of any incoming prime minister, dismissing or demoting no fewer than 13 of her erstwhile cabinet colleagues – most notably George Osborne and Michael Gove. Only 15 of the 27 ministers who attended her cabinet, including May herself, had attended Cameron’s last cabinet. Only five of them retained their job or portfolio.

The present reshuffle is closer in scale to May’s second, which came in the wake of the 2017 general election. She was obliged to replace Ben Gummer, who had lost his Ipswich seat; she brought back Gove as environment secretary and brought in Brandon Lewis as the immigration minister. Overall, however, no fewer than 26 of her 28 post-election cabinet attendees had attended before polling day, and 21 of them retained their previous portfolios.

Failure to deliver

Reshuffles are a very public exercise in prime ministerial power. One-time cabinet minister Richard Crossman once told an audience at Harvard:

Each minister fighting in the Cabinet for his department can be sacked by the prime minister any day … I am aware that I am there at the prime minister’s discretion. The prime minister can withdraw that discretion on any day he likes without stating a reason. And there’s nothing much I can do about it.

But reshuffles can also be a very public reminder of the limits of prime ministerial power. A prime minister’s ability to wield the knife waxes and wanes with their personal authority. Whereas most prime ministers overhaul their governments after winning re-election, May’s loss of her parliamentary majority at the recent general election meant she was simply unable to. Her immediate future was in doubt, and any sacked or reluctantly moved ministers could have taken the opportunity to challenge her leadership.

Hell no, I won’t go: Jeremy Hunt. EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga

The same factors that constrained the prime minister in June 2017 tied her hands this January. She was unable to persuade Jeremy Hunt to move from the Department of Health, and she was unable to persuade Greening to move from Education to the Department for Work and Pensions. Hunt stayed in post, Greening quit the government outright. May could just about afford to lose one cabinet minister in this way, but with Damien Green’s ignominious departure only weeks before, other planned sackings were almost certainly shelved.

On the positive side, May has gone some way to broadening the look of her cabinet. She’s increased the number of women attending from eight to ten. She might also have helped to assuage the concerns of her party’s troublesome eurosceptic wing by slightly increasing the proportion of Leavers around the cabinet table.

On the other hand, May has done little to enhance her reputation and prestige. Having raised expectations of wholesale change, she has now failed to deliver; by failing to move Hunt and others, she has exposed the limits of her authority. Perhaps more importantly, the departure of Greening adds another unhappy former minister and potential Remainer rebel to the government’s restive backbenches. The parliamentary arithmetic was already tight for May’s government – and now it’s just a little bit tighter.