UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempt to give her government a 2018 reboot was marred by a chaotic cabinet reshuffle as senior ministers refused to follow her orders. It’s a development that bodes ill for her ability to successfully navigate the next, even trickier stage of Brexit talks.
May’s office flagged the events as “a refresh” of her top team. But instead of the usual parade of lawmakers arriving at her office in quick succession to accept their new roles, things went off script. First Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, then Education Secretary Justine Greening were locked in discussions with her after rejecting proposed moves.
Hunt eventually won his argument to stay on, but Greening, who spent more than two hours in 10 Downing Street, quit rather than accept another job. May was said to be “disappointed” at losing Greening, who opposed Brexit, and could now vote with pro-European Union rebels in the House of Commons.
It was not the restart she wanted. There were echoes of her botched decision to call an election in her announcement of a reshuffle she didn’t have to carry out. In both instances May seemed to dissipate any political goodwill she recouped. She’ll chair the first meeting of her new cabinet, as she continues a reshuffle of the junior ranks of government.
“We’re only now just getting into the wider part of the reshuffle,” new Conservative party Chairman Brandon Lewis said on Tuesday in a BBC TV interview. “You can look forward to seeing some good fresh talent coming through and also a really good diverse government being put in place across all departments.”
The premier had begun the new year in a position of relative strength, having concluded a problematic first phase of talks over Brexit — still the issue that will define her political legacy and will only get more complicated this year.
“She can’t have the government she would choose and has to select from a small group of people,” said Matt Beech, director of the Centre for British Politics at the University of Hull. “Even with a majority she’d be facing tough decisions because her party’s completely divided on Brexit.”
May had hoped to put 2017 behind her with the departure of Damian Green, a trusted friend forced to resign last month. The idea had been to inject momen-tum in her domestic policies and show she was not just “Madam Brexit,” but a leader with a shot at re-election in 2022.
However, things got off to an inauspicious start when Conservatives tweeted the appointment of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling as the new party chairman only to delete the post quickly. Hours late it was revealed that Grayling, rumored for the chop, was keeping his exact same job.
In a reshuffle that unraveled over the course of several hours and lasted into the night, it became clear that the key takeaway was how little wriggle room May seemed to have to enact change
as minister after minister were confirmed in their posts.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Brexit Secretary David Davis, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Amber Rudd all stayed put — preserving a delicate balance of pro- and anti-EU voices that May navigates.
There were some surprising developments, unrelated to the planned reshuffle. James Brokenshire, a close ally of May’s who had worked with her when she was in charge of the Home Office, quit as Northern Ireland secretary due to ill health. Karen Bradley, another colleague she knows and trusts from her own past experience, was appointed to replace him.
It’s a key role both for Brexit and the stability of May’s minority government as it will involve delicate negotiations over the Irish border and devolved government with
the Democratic Unionist Party, whose lawmakers prop up the
government after May lost her
majority in June’s vote.