UK politics: Cabinet reshuffle: much ado about little

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Country Data and Maps
Economist Intelligence Unit
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Politics, News Analysis, Forecast, Domestic politics
Political Geography
United Kingdom

A cabinet and government reshuffle on January 8th-9th illustrated the prime minister's weakened authority-with one minister (Jeremy Hunt) refusing to move ministry and another (Justine Greening) choosing to resign rather than move-and exposed the gaffe-prone team at the Conservative Party head office to more media ridicule. Despite this, the reshuffle has not altered the balance of power in the government or its standing in the country. Political instability will remain high, but we expect the Conservative Party to see through the Brexit negotiations in 2018-21 before contemplating changing the party leadership and risking precipitating another early general election.

Now that the dust has settled it is apparent that the reshuffle has changed very little either in terms of the balance of power within the government or of how the government is viewed by the electorate. It was never likely that the prime minister, Theresa May, would undertake a major cabinet shakeup; her main objective, and that of her party, since her disastrous 2017 general election campaign has been to avoid any major changes that might upset the delicate balance inside the government and threaten her leadership. However, the government talked up the reshuffle in advance and raised expectations of major changes, motivated no doubt by a desire to show that the prime minister had come through a difficult period-the low-point of which was a calamitous party conference speech-and was now back in charge after wrapping up the first stage of the Brexit negotiations in December 2017.

In the event the reshuffle served only to underline the prime minister's persistent lack of authority. She did not even try to reshuffle any of the core cabinet ministers, and those she did try to reshuffle refused to budge. Mr Hunt's refusal to relinquish his position at the Department of Health in the midst of a winter crisis in the National Health System (NHS) could have been anticipated by a more savvy political operator; that he had not even been consulted prior to his meeting with Mrs May reveals a deeper personnel management failing on the prime minister's part. Mr Hunt's ministerial remit was also expanded to cover social care, a reorganisation that was apparently planned regardless of who headed the ministry.

Ms Greening's decision to resign rather than accept a move to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), politically one of the most important ministries, showed that her relationship with the prime minister had broken down. It also happened to reveal that there was no consensus in the cabinet about what the government wanted to do about education. Ms Greening's departure was bemoaned by educational professionals, but she had not really made a huge impact on the department. Damian Hinds, formerly a treasury and employment minister, was belatedly appointed education secretary. Esther McVey, a former minister of state in the DWP, was appointed as the work and pensions secretary.

Maintaining the Brexit balance in cabinet

Other governmental appointments included Karen Bradley as Northern Ireland secretary, Matt Hancock as culture secretary and David Gauke as justice minister (Lord Chancellor). Mr Gauke replaced David Lidington, who in turn replaced Damian Green as minister for the cabinet office. However, Mr Lidington has not been given the title of first secretary of state like his predecessor, who was effectively deputy prime minister. Mr Green was sacked after he admitted failing to tell the truth about pornography found on his office computer more than a decade ago. The pro-EU Mr Lidington, who campaigned for the "remain" side in the EU referendum in June 2016, will chair the many Brexit committees that Mr Green had previously overseen. Mrs May passed over the opportunity to promote to senior positions some of the talented intake of members of parliament from the 2015 election, but moved some, such as Dominic Raab, sideways into other ministries. She was careful to maintain the balance of pro- and anti-Brexit forces in the cabinet.

Brandon Lewis was appointed as new party chairman, replacing Patrick McLoughlin, but only after the Conservatives' official Twitter account had wrongly announced that Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, would get the job-the first and most embarrassing gaffe of the reshuffle. James Cleverly was appointed as deputy to Mr Lewis. Another 13 vice-chair positions were filled covering business, youth, women, communities, etc.

The reshuffle excited much attention in the Westminster political and media bubble and among a few special interest groups such as education professionals, but was largely ignored by the British public. It also appears not to have changed anything with regard to the government's standing, with the Conservatives still on about 40% in the opinion polls. There is no appetite either in the party or among the general public for another election. We have not changed our view that the Conservative Party will aim to see through the Brexit negotiations before contemplating changing the party leadership and risking precipitating another early general election.

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