UK politics: Failure to relaunch
- Content Type
- Country Data and Maps
- Economist Intelligence Unit
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- Politics, News Analysis
- Political Geography
- United Kingdom
Bagehot: Failure to relaunch
Theresa May has added a botched reshuffle to her lengthening list of botches
THE Conservative Party appointed Theresa May as its leader because it thought she had a safe pair of hands. The party was so traumatised by the vote to leave the European Union--and so terrified that Brexit would tear it apart--that it turned to the person who was a byword for stability. Mrs May had spent six years in the Home Office without any particular disasters. She had skilfully straddled the In/Out divide on Brexit. Even her most conspicuous defect--the fact that she had never knowingly said anything of any interest about anything--looked in those desperate times like a virtue.
Since becoming leader she has demonstrated beyond doubt that her hands are anything but safe. She triggered Article 50 of the EU treaty (which set a two-year deadline for leaving) without having done the necessary preparations. She called a general election which destroyed her majority. She gave the worst leader's speech at a party conference in living memory. Just before Christmas it looked as if she was at last beginning to regain her authority, thanks to a successful budget and the conclusion of the first stage of the negotiations to withdraw from the EU. But whatever goodwill she had accumulated was destroyed by this week's cack-handed cabinet reshuffle.
The most polite words being used in Westminster to describe the reshuffle are "farcical" and "shambolic". Many less polite words are also being thrown around. An exercise designed to highlight Mrs May's strength served to highlight her weakness. An opportunity to refresh the cabinet ended with most senior people left in place.
Downing Street had prepared the ground for a significant reshuffle, with a combination of bigging-up here and doing-down there. Jeremy Hunt would move from health, where he has been for five years. Andrea Leadsom would be spending more time with her family. The business department would be given to somebody more dynamic than Greg Clark. But Mr Hunt not only persuaded the prime minister to leave him in his job, he also added social care to his portfolio. Mr Clark remains at business. Ms Leadsom is still leader of the House. The only significant person to leave the cabinet, Justine Greening, happens to be a gay woman from a marginal constituency.
Mrs May compounded her failure to make some widely anticipated changes by making unnecessary ones. It is only worth incurring the costs of moving people, in lost experience and bureaucratic disruption, if you move them up the ladder or into a more appropriate job. In two prominent cases the reshuffle was all costs and no benefits. Dominic Raab is an able lawyer who was also one of the leaders of the Leave campaign. She moved him sideways from the Ministry of Justice to housing. Rory Stewart has rare experience on foreign affairs as a diplomat and academic. She shunted him into Mr Raab's old job.
The reshuffle exposed more than Mrs May's weakness vis-à-vis her colleagues. It also emphasised the emotional limitations of the Maybot. She has worked closely with Mr Hunt for years. You might have thought she would sense how he would feel about being moved in the middle of a health-care "winter crisis" that threatened to destroy his legacy. It also demonstrated the narrowness of her horizons. She focused on changing the guard at Conservative Central Office and even arranged a photo shoot to prove how diverse the party is becoming. But voters hardly care about party apparatchiks. She reinforced the sense that the Tories care more about presentation than problem-solving by changing the name of two Whitehall departments.
Mrs May is a politician who doesn't really like politics--rather like a footballer who dislikes round objects or an actor who hates make-believe. But her biggest problem is more fundamental: she doesn't have any ideas. Even in normal times, politics runs on ideas more than anything else--if you know where you are going and why you want to get there then you can ride over minor problems like botched reshuffles. In these abnormal times, ideas matter more than ever. Britain is embarking on its period of greatest disruption since the second world war. The party that inflicted this change on the country has a duty to demonstrate how it can use its new-found freedoms to make life better, particularly in areas that were heavily influenced by the EU such as migration and farming. Britain is also seeing the limits of the economic model that Margaret Thatcher pioneered in the 1980s. The Tories need compelling solutions to problems generated by this approach, such as the fact that the National Health Service is too fragmented, or that Jeff Fairburn, the boss of Persimmon, a building company, has just been paid an annual bonus of over £110m ($150m).
A difficult hand
Plenty of Conservatives are thinking seriously about such things. Bagehot took a break from watching the reshuffle to listen to Nick Boles give an interesting talk on Teddy Roosevelt's idea that capitalism needs to be saved from itself, by using the state to break up monopolies and promote the interests of consumers and small businesses. Mr Boles thinks that could provide a model for the Tories. One of the few bright points in the reshuffle was the promotion of cerebral MPs such as Rishi Sunak (to housing) and Sam Gyimah (to higher education). But it is hard to see how the party can harness new thinking when its leader is so averse to ideas. Mrs May's desk is the place where good ideas go to die.
The British system provides two safeguards against national atrophy. Parties can sack prime ministers if they are not up to the job. And electorates can kick out governments when their time is up. But Mrs May is locked in place, because her party is terrified of provoking a civil war over Brexit. And booting out the Tories would mean electing an opposition that has been captured by a neo-Marxist clique. This week's reshuffle was light relief compared with contemplating Britain's deeper political problems.
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